Read Blog

The latest on plastic pollution

Do Plastic Micro-Beads From Facial Scrubbers Escape Sewage Treatment?

Posted on: 15 Comments

photo(Mission Control, Portland, Oregon Waste Water Treatment)

Last week as part of our due diligence for the run-up to one of our major campaigns for 2013-14 I toured the Portland, Oregon Waste Water Treatment Plant to understand whether the .3 to .5 millimeter polyethylene beads used as exfoliants in facial scrubber products escape into the environment. 5 Gyres began investigating the fate of micro-beads after discovering very high concentrations of them in our expedition to The Great Lakes last summer.  For any of you new to 5 Gyres, this blog post serves as a great primer to understand how we work, and how we’re different. 5 Gyres sails the world’s oceans and now, fresh water systems to research questions as to the fate of plastic in the aquatic environment. We use the evidence we gather to target how best to engage in outreach and education as well as inform our policy directives. Recognizing that there is often a disconnect between the science and policy worlds, 5 Gyres strives to create a narrative for implementation of common sense policies on plastics from empirical, firsthand knowledge  learned at sea (or at lake). Our Micro-bead campaign is a perfect example of this formula in action.  Here’s what we found in the Great Lakes:


In Lake Erie, two samples had around 600,000 of these little plastic micro-beads pers square kilometer. It wasn’t our intention to find them. We were looking for micro-plastics similar to those found in the ocean and though we found some of those too, the micro-beads really stood out. In the ocean, it’s fairly unlikely to find them on the ocean surface because they’re so small and they’d easily get mixed into the water column. But in Lake Erie (which of course drains into the sea) we found pretty incredible concentrations of them on a dead flat, calm day. Lake Erie is also very shallow, so mixing is less likely. This discovery made us ask a whole suite of other questions. Where did they come? What are they made of? Will we find them in Lake Michigan and Ontario as well? What should we do about it?

Well, sort of by accident we think we found the culprit. There are many companies that make facial cleanser products that incorporate these beads as an abrasive agent to remove dead skin from your face. Two of the biggest in the United State are Proctor and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson. Yes, you’re probably washing your face with plastic! 5 Gyres isn’t anti-plastic, we’re anti-plastic in the environment and we target plastic products that have poor or no recovery plan, end of life. For example, plastic bags are difficult to recycle and tend to go airborne and pollute the world over so targeting them is a no brainer. That’s an example of a poor recovery plan. But what about plastics ACTUALLY DESIGNED TO GO DOWN THE DRAIN? That’s crazy! These facial scrubbers are used, presumably, over a sink in a bathroom and will be washed straight down the drain. Well, drains lead to the ocean and the only thing between them is sewage treatment. In many cities across the United States we have two tiered sewage treatment, but when there is a storm event water treatment plants can be overwhelmed and what you get is combined sewage overflow which means raw sewage goes directly into the environment. So, we know for sure that these beads would enter the ecosystem at storm events.

photo(Digested Solids used as fertilizer)

Some of these beads could be getting into the solid output of sewage treatment as well– bacteria processed waste solids (pooh) used as fertilizer means the beads would be become runoff, eventually. But the bigger question is whether they make it all the way through treatment and are contained in the effluent draining into our watersheds. Though small, beads in facial cleansers are prolific. In one tube, we estimate nearly 350,000 of them! So combined, the impact could be substantial. They’re plastic, which means they concentrate toxic chemicals present in the water, and they’re so small they could be interacting with wildlife on a cellular level.

So we started asking questions. We talked to Proctor and Gamble’s sustainability VP and he couldn’t answer whether the beads in his product were getting through treatment. We asked wastewater managers whether they were getting through and they had no idea either. Essentially, we’re looking at a plastic product with absolutely no recovery plan which is exactly why we’re targeting this product for elimination. Unilever, another big player in the personal care product market announced that they’d suspend the usage of micro-beads in their products by 2015. We’re asking Proctor and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson to do the same.

Next week I’ll return to Portland Water Treatment and sample the effluent from the pipe that releases directly into the Columbia River, one of the largest watersheds in the world. Carolynn and Marcus will repeat this sampling in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well.  From surveying the water treatment plant and speaking with a 36 year water treatment veteran, our hypothesis is that ‘some are getting through.’ Stay tuned for an update later next week on what we find and stay tuned for our Instagram Contest asking YOU to find the products in your stores that contain these beads.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

15 Responses

  1. Susan says:

    I left a message with the Body Shop on their facebook page about this b/c their product had them too! They actually got right back to me and said they were looking into it. Their explanation was that they had to find a scrubbing material that had no sharp edges because of product safety regulations and were looking for alternate materials to use. Here is part of their reply with their official statement on the matter:

    “This is a wider beauty industry issue and we, like many other global beauty brands, have been forced to use synthetic scrub particles for face products in the last few years as safety restrictions in some markets around the world have become more stringent. These safety restrictions require us to ensure that all scrub particles used on the face are consistently rounded in shape, which is difficult to achieve with natural particles. In order to provide a global product formulation that is stable and safe for use we have, unfortunately, had to resort to synthetic materials such as polyethylene.
    Please note that we are investigating natural, and naturally derived, alternatives to polyethylene but as yet nothing has met our exacting standards for safety, performance and lack of animal testing. We’re on the case!”

    Just thought you might like to see this!

    In support,

    • Rosemary Tomlinson-Morris says:

      Our elementary school is doing a water unit. We are studying the pollutant of microbeads.

      Their question is “Why does the “global market” need a scrub with this in it at all?”

      Why not just ban the use and any product with microbeads to cut down on global water pollution?

  2. Jason Makeig says:

    Well done 5 Gyres … Love your work and sounds like you are onto it… Am making a sculpture on plastic in the environment and will post when finished. It’s called the Zeno-oestrogen Molecule…

  3. Marcus Eriksen says:

    Hi Susan,
    Thanks for sharing the feedback from the Body Shop. I’m surprised that they would reference stringent requirements on the texture of exfoliants leaving them no alternative than to put microplastics in their product intended to be washed down the drain. Burt’s Bees (crushed apricot shells) and St. Ives (cocoa beans) have had great market success without producing environmentally harmful waste.
    Body Shop’s claim that they use plastic microbeads because they are concerned about animal testing is completely contradictory to the harm that the microbeads in their product can cause to wildlife when they are lost to the marine environment.
    Body Shop could do better. I would be happy to follow up with your contact if you care to share.

  4. Dave Wolfskehl says:

    Fascinating writing, I will share it onwards

  5. Zoe Helene says:

    This is what I’d like to focus on for your feature Huffington Post story. My husband was just a speaker at a huge cosmetics ingredients company in Paris — there were plastic beads and plastic samples and plastic packaging of all sorts. Plastic, plastic, plastic. I want to hear all about this.

  6. KBC says:

    Next week I’ll return to Portland Water Treatment and sample the effluent from the pipe that releases directly into the Columbia River, one of the largest watersheds in the world.

    <–Where is the result?

  7. Jason Makeig says:

    Well said Marcus … No excuse there with the Body Shop and meanwhile their product keeps on affecting wildlife…

  8. [...] Of particular interest are personal care products that contain the anti-bacterial triclosan, small plastic scrubbing beads, or nanoparticles such as [...]

  9. Sona says:

    I want to do a science fair project on the Microbeads to create awareness. How do I measure them from the water sample?

  10. Sona says:

    Thanks for your reply. I wrote to him and he replied that we can borrow his net in March. We do not have time for that, we are planning to buy our own net. I’ll email him with more questions.

  11. Susan in Maine says:

    I really appreciate your article! Found via Google after my daughter alerted me to this problem. I’ve been using a Johnson & Johnson product (Clean & Clear Morning Burst) to wash my face in the shower for a few years now, assuming from copy on the product that the beads burst (and– I thought–dissolve) as you scrub. They make it sound as if there’s a citrus-based liquid inside those beads — but that might only illustrate a clever way to use copywriting to mislead consumers! Previously, I used a more expensive scrub from Usana Sensé that uses rice bran to provide gentle exfoliation.
    Of course, gentle but thorough use of a terrycloth washcloth is the traditional & effective way to accomplish the same task!

Leave a Reply