Editorial: Little beads causing big problems

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Vancouver Sun (print), August 28 2014

The dangers that plastics pose to wildlife and waterways is well known. Most of us have seen pictures of turtles tangled in plastic shopping bags, or seabirds strangled by six-pack rings. What is harder to see and take pictures of is the damage being done by tiny beads of plastic contained in products like facial scrubs and toothpaste.

These tiny beads of plastic, often called microbeads or microplastics, are so small that they slip through our wastewater treatment systems and into our streams, lakes and rivers, washing up on shore. Dr. Peter Ross of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Pollution Science Program recently co-authored a study that showed massive amounts of this plastic waste present in the waters off our coast.

These plastics are impossible to clean up once they are in our waterways or on our beaches, and while they are small, they can cause big problems.

Often fish and other sea creatures mistake microbeads for food such as fish eggs or plankton. This puts the sea creature at risk of starvation or malnutrition as the indigestable plastic beads fill their stomachs and prevent them from getting enough food. Like many plastics, microbeads can not only release toxic chemicals, they can also absorb dangerous pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the environment. This is even more bad news for the fish and sea creatures that mistake microbeads for food.

Unfortunately, it’s even worse news for us, because even if we don’t directly eat the fish that consumed these plastic beads, many toxic chemicals bioaccumulate. That means that as big fish eat smaller fish, they consume more and more of these chemicals. They build up, getting more and more concentrated throughout the food chain, and since we’re at the top of that food chain, we often get the worst of it.

Microbeads are such a threat to mussels and other shellfish that the Netherlands is campaigning to have them banned across the European Union to protect their shellfish industry. Given that B.C. also relies on the shellfish industry to power coastal communities, we should show the same level of concern.

So what can we do about microbeads? Illinois answered that question by passing a law banning products containing microbeads from store shelves. New York is looking at similar legislation.

This is the simplest solution, and it’s one that is even being supported by some of the biggest companies making these products. For example, Unilever has committed to removing microbeads from all their products by 2015. Clearly, microbeads aren’t necessary.

Unfortunately, not all companies are on board with this direction, so we need to take action to protect B.C.’s beautiful rivers, lakes, and coastal waters, as well as the fish and wildlife that depend on them. That’s why I’m calling on the B.C. Liberal government to ban the sale of products containing microbeads in British Columbia.

While we wait for the B.C. Liberal government to act, we can all do our part by refusing to buy these products that threaten our health and environment. Look at the label. If a personal care product contains polyethylene or polypropylene, it often contains microbeads. Look especially carefully at the labels of facial scrubs and other similar products. There are plenty of alternatives that don’t threaten our waterways.

We can’t afford to ignore the big problems caused by these little pieces of plastic. I’m hopeful that we can work together to end this pointless pollution of our marine ecosystems.

Spencer Chandra Herbert is the B.C. New Democrat spokesperson for the environment