Microbeads are plastic microspheres that are widely used in cosmetics as exfoliating agents and personal care products such as toothpaste, as well as biomedical and health science research, microscopy techniques, fluid visualization and fluid flow analysis, and process troubleshooting. They are most frequently made of polyethylene but can be of other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene.
It will surprise no one who lives here that New York’s waterways are filled with garbage — after all, this is the city of snow trash. But a new study went to great lengths to calculate just how much garbage has landed in the various rivers, estuaries, kills, and other bodies of water that collectively stretch from the Tappan Zee Bridge to Sandy Hook. A crew from NY/NJ Baykeeper sampled 18 locations around the New York Bight and calculated that, at any given time, an estimated 165 million bits of plastic, or more than 256,000 particles per square kilometer, are floating in the waterways surrounding both states.
According to the New York Times, most of the plastic particles — 38 percent — take the form of polystyrene, or what you’d casually call Styrofoam. Other categories include fishing line, clothing fiber, pellets, and films. To come up with an accurate estimate, the team dragged a manta trawl — a “nine-foot net with a large open mouth that resembles a manta ray” — across different patches of water at two knots for 30-minute stretches, then counted the take. Based on a study of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, they could then extrapolate that 165,840,512 pieces of plastic are bobbing around between New York and New Jersey.
That includes the microbeads that were until recently used in cosmetic products, which are extremely dangerous to marine animals because they (a) absorb other toxins, and (b) are so tiny that fish accidentally eat them, taking in those toxins. Despite being banned in December, microbeads still showed up in NY/NJ Baykeeper’s samples, as did other types of microplastics that had broken down (but not disappeared) over time. In fact, 85 percent of plastics discovered in waterways were five millimeters or smaller. In other words, just because it’s not depressingly huge and visibly disgusting doesn’t mean it’s not killing wildlife.
On Monday, December 28, President Obama signed into effect the “Microbead Free Waters Act,” which prohibits the sale of products that include microbeads in their formula and will effectively ban microbeads in the United States as soon as July 2017.