Eartha Steward
Special to the Daily

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August 21, 2014
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Ask Eartha: Plastic microbeads used in cosmetics can pollute our waterways

Dear Eartha,

I recently saw a news story about personal care products breaking down into plastic microbeads that pollute waterways. I was curious if Lake Dillon is at risk?

—Carl, Dillon

Plastic microbeads are added to thousands of personal care products like shampoos, toothpastes, soaps, and facial scrubs. A single tube of facewash can contain over 330,000 microbeads, each about .5 mm in diameter. While they add texture and assist in exfoliating, plastics of any size or shape are not biodegradable. Often community water treatment plants are unable to filter these particles. As a result, microbeads pollute our rivers, lakes and oceans.

A single plastic particle can absorb up to 1,000,000 times more toxic chemicals than the water around it, like a sponge. The particles attach to aquatic plant life and are consumed by marine wildlife. At the base level, over 663 different species are affected by plastic pollution. This contamination then moves up the food chain. The trout you had for dinner could very well contain plastic.

The 5 Gyres Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigating the issue of plastics in the world’s oceans and waterways. Their groundbreaking research of plastic pollution in The Great Lakes found high numbers of microbeads in samples from Lake Erie. In some cases there was more than 450,000 plastic particles per square kilometer.

In addition to conducting research, 5 Gyres campaigns for manufacturers to stop producing, retailers to stop selling, and consumers to stop purchasing products containing plastic microbeads. Their grassroots movement managed to get Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and the Body Shop to voluntarily phase-out plastics. 5 Gyres also encourages legislation and bans on plastic microbeads at the federal level. This past June, they applauded Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr.’s introduction of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2014.

To voice your opinion visit 5Gyres.org and sign their petition.

Since the bill will not go into effect until 2018, each of us should take personal accountability and cease purchasing products containing plastics. Be sure to read your labels. The ingredients list won’t mention plastic so the key words to avoid are “polyethylene” and “polypropylene.” There are even phone apps that can identify personal care products containing plastic.

Natural and biodegradable exfoliants are available as alternatives. On my face, I use a dry scrub containing fine rice powder and a pumpkin enzyme masque. These are less harsh than the thick plastic granules and still reveal a shiny complexion. Whole Foods (Frisco), Natural Grocers (Dillon), and Blue Sage Spa (Breckenridge) all provide organic skin care products. I also use a homemade coffee ground and sugar scrub on my body. Some companies will incorporate cocoa beans, apricot seeds, sea salt, jojoba beads, and pecan shells as exfoliants.

To learn whether or not Lake Dillon is at risk of plastic microbead pollution, I paid a visit to Butch Green, manager of the Frisco Sanitation District. Green was beyond helpful and rather than telling me about the water treatment process he showed me.

As we stood over two large filtration tanks, each filled with 500,000 gallons of water, Green explained that their process is more advanced than those found in other communities. Chemicals are used to remove phosphorus. In doing so, the facility is deterring algae growth and keeping the lake clean but not green. Screens are employed within the filtration process and air is even introduced so that particles sink to the bottom and water can be moved further along the system.

He pointed to a screen in one tank and said that it was able to trap 36,000 pounds of plastic. Next the water passes through another filter of charcoal and sand. If any plastics made it through the first filter, they won’t be able to pass through this one. The charcoal and sand are capable of removing bacteria, e. coli and other microscopic organisms.

It is impressive how pure the water is upon leaving the plant. However, Green still urges people not to flush pharmaceutical products down the drain or the toilet since these cannot be removed.

I genuinely enjoyed the visit to our community’s water treatment facility and Butch Green was a wealth of information. He even hosts student field trips. I plan on returning for a more formal tour and encourage curious readers to schedule their own visit.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at eartha@highcountryconservation.org.

Since the bill will not go into effect until 2018, each of us should take personal accountability and cease purchasing products containing plastics. Be sure to read your labels.


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The Summit Daily Updated Aug 21, 2014 10:00AM Published Aug 22, 2014 06:19AM Copyright 2014 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.