THE BLOG
11/06/2013 04:43 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hey cosmetics industry: get your plastic out of the Great Lakes!

By Susan Cosier, OnEarth

Got an exfoliating face wash in your medicine cabinet? You might not know it, but that face wash--along, most likely, with some of your soaps, deodorants, and maybe even your toothpaste--is full of minuscule plastic spheres, known, appropriately enough, as microbeads. When you wash or spit after using any of those products, the microbeads go down the drain and wind up in our rivers, lakes, and streams.

A single 4.2-ounce tube of cosmetics can contain as many as 356,000 of those tiny balls, and, as Susan Freinkel reported in the most recent issue of OnEarth (see "Don't Lather, Don't Rinse, Don't Repeat"), researchers have found microbeads in more than 200 consumer products. Needless to say, that's a lot of plastic going down the drain and into our waterways, which can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. Fish and birds often eat the plastic, which get stuck in their digestive tracts. The plastic could also leach toxins. And microplastics are difficult if not impossible to get rid of because no natural organisms break them down.

One place the problem is particularly bad: the Great Lakes, where last year scientists from local universities and the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, detected the presence of up to 1.1 million tiny particles of plastic, including microbeads, per square mile--twice as many as had ever been recorded.

Now an organization that represents 100 U.S. and Canadian cities around the Great Lakes is asking their federal environmental agencies to do something about these pernicious pieces of pollution. "Even though you cannot see them, they pose a very real threat to human and wildlife health," John Dickert, the mayor of Racine, Wisconsin, told the Associated Press.

Dickert is secretary-treasurer of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a coalition of local officials working to protect and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. In letters drafted earlier this week to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada, the group asked for details about agency research into the threat of microbeads and what actions those agencies are taking to keep microbeads out of waterways. Ideally, local officials would like the agencies to clean up what's already out there (how is unclear) and eliminate more microbeads from slipping through wastewater treatment plants and ending up in the Great Lakes.

Instead of calling for a consumer boycott, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which includes officials from Chicago, Montreal, and Rochester, New York, is asking companies that make plastic exfoliants to phase them out. That's an approach that the 5 Gyres Institute has already had some success with. Four companies, including Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson, have agreed to voluntarily stop using microbeads in their products by the end of 2017, but many more have either not set a date or made no commitment.

Until they do, perhaps a nice salt scrub will help keep you, and the lakes, looking good.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.