An Ottawa MPP is leading the charge to ban the use of microbeads in Ontario. The small pieces of plastic used in cosmetics are ending up in the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie.
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They’re as small as a grain of table salt, tiny as the head of a pin.
But micro-plastics are causing macro-headaches for the Great Lakes, where some say the bits of plastic are more pervasive than in the world’s oceans.
Now, Ontario is positioning itself to become the first place in Canada to ban manufacture or use of microbeads as cosmetic exfoliants.
“It’s not a good product to be going through our environment,” said Ottawa Liberal MPP Marie-France Lalonde, who introduced the legislation. It passed second reading in March and is expected to be debated by a legislative committee within weeks.
“It’s a significant bill” that also requires lake-water sampling and analysis to determine the extent of the problem, she said.
If the bill passes, Ontario would join Illinois and New Jersey in banning the plastics.
Other states — including Indiana, Ohio and Michigan — are also proposing bans.
Cities across the Great Lakes region are watching closely, including the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative and its 114 Canadian and U.S. members.
“It’s big on our radar, for sure. It’s one of our hot topics,” said Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs, a past chairperson of the group.
Few municipal wastewater systems can filter out the tiny beads as they drain from bathrooms to sewage plants to lakes.
One study by the California policy and environmental group 5 Gyres Institute showed the highest concentrations of micro-plastics are in Lake Erie, which accounted for about 90% of all the plastics they found.
Erie’s concentrations exceeded that of any other lake or ocean sampled.
“We have taken a big stance (against) microbeads. We thought the oceans were bad, but the Great Lakes are worse,” Hobbs said.
His group has called for a full ban and full disclosure of products that contain micro-plastics.
The Ontario bill would ban making them or adding them to products.
“I do think that the bill needs to talk about (banning) the sale of products” to prevent imports of foreign cosmetics with microbeads, said Nancy Goucher, water program manager for the Canadian group Environmental Defence.
“There can be tens of thousands of microbeads in one bottle of facial scrub.”
Several major companies, led by Unilever and with others following suit, have committed to remove microbeads from their products.
Other options, such as ground almonds or cocoa beans, are biodegradable, Goucher said.
By contrast, microbeads can absorb any toxins in the water; if eaten by fish, they can contaminate the food chain, she said.
“Adding plastics to our personal care products is completely unnecessary and they never should have been added in the first place,” she said.
The lobbyists recently petitioned Ottawa to classify microbeads as toxic, which could be a first step to banning their use in consumer products.
Halifax NDP MP and environment critic Megan Leslie received all-party support last week when she echoed that call. The federal Environment Ministry says it will “prioritize” the issue.
One key to passing a ban in Illinois was industry support. “We want to work with manufacturers,” said Lalonde, adding no one has cited a compelling reason to keep adding microbeads to products.
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Tiny pieces of polypropylene and polyethylene plastic; not biodegradable.
Usually about 1 mm in diam-eter, can be as large as 5 mm.
Provide the gritty feel in facial scrubs, body wash, deodorants, soap, some toothpastes.
Ontario’s Bill 75
Microbead Elimination and Monitoring Act.
Would ban manufacture or addition of microbeads to soaps, cosmetics, or similar products.
Maximum fine for an offence is $10,000.
Annual Great Lakes water analysis, to be published online.
Conduct research into plastic bead alternatives.
Would take effect two years after becoming law.
Microbeads, fish and us
Microbeads from personal care products wash down drains into municipal sewers.
Too small to be filtered out by municipal sewage plant, they go into nearby rivers or lakes.
In the water, they can absorb toxins already in the water.
Fish, believing they’re food, swallow them and the toxins.
Birds, wild mammals and people eat the fish.
Want to find out if your bath products have microbeads? Go to beatthemicrobead.org to find a downloadable app you can use to check for microbeads by scanning product codes before you buy.