Great Lakes polluted with facial scrub microbeads

Scientists have identified microbeads from facial cleansers and toothpastes as the major sources of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, and based on their findings, the companies producing them are actually making a change.

It's certainly no surprise that the Great Lakes are polluted, what with an estimated 37 million people living around them. However, the majority of that pollution apparently doesn't come from industrial runoff, but instead from our bathroom sinks. The problem of microplastic pollution has been studied for years now, and some of the most recent findings were discussed at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society back in April. Of all the plastic floating around in the lakes, the fast majority of it is in the form of tiny pellets — some larger, like those used in plastics production, but much of it was so small you could only see it clearly under a microscope.

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Scientists working with the 5 Gyres Institute — an organization whose goal is eliminating the plastic floating around in our oceans, lakes and other waterways — did the 'leg work' on this, collecting samples from Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie, and then tracking down the source. Their search led them straight to pharmacy shelves and the products we use every day to clean our faces and brush our teeth.

“The ones in the store, under a scanning electron microscope, matched the same size, colour, texture, and shape as the micro-beads in our samples in the Great Lakes,” said Marcus Eriksen, the research director of 5 Gyres, in an interview with CBC Thunder Bay's Superior Morning.

Each tube of cleanser apparently had around 330,000 of these beads, and all of it washes down the drain and into the lakes.

The real surprise about this came from the companies making the cleansers, though.

"Typically, when environmental organizations and scientists engage companies, sometimes it gets heated and the discussions last for years," Eriksen said, in the CBC interview. "But in this case, I was really impressed to see that we took science ... to the companies and, without having to spend time and money involved in a policy solution, the companies themselves chose to solve it on their own."

Unilever, the company that makes products like Dove, Vaseline, and Pond's skin cream already announced earlier this year that they were going to remove these plastic microbeads by 2015. According to the CBC News article, L'Oreal, the Body Shop and Johnson & Johnson have all committed to that same timeline, and Proctor & Gamble will apparently phase them out by 2017.

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Everyone can help with this right now, though, by switching to products that don't contain these beads. If it doesn't use the word 'microbeads' on the packaging or in the advertising, look for words like 'polyethylene' and 'polypropylene' on the label. If you want something to help with exfoliation, use a cotton washcloth or a loofah, or there's facial cleansers that use something other than plastic. Apparently, Burt’s Bees uses things like ground peach pits, almonds and oats, and St. Ives uses ground apricot kernels in one of their products.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

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