Microbeads might be convenient but not for our environment

Parliament passed an NDP motion this week that instructs the government to add microbeads to the list of toxic substance regulated under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA).  You may not know what these microbeads are, but you probably have quite a few in your house. 

They are made of polyethylene which is a form of plastic and are used in cosmetics and similar products to create a sense of smoothness in texture or to create a grit that is used to scour in products like exfoliates or toothpaste.   They are versatile and so small that people don’t notice them and have replaced traditional options such as ground almonds, oatmeal, or sea salt.  It’s not even that microbeads are a new development but more a case of usage skyrocketing in recent years. 

The real problem with microbeads is that they slip right through wastewater treatment facilities and make their way into water where the plastic attracts chemical pollutants which bond to them.  They do not break down and this growing mass of plastic in our waters is then consumed – especially by filter feeders and plankton.  The chemicals work their way up the food chain magnifying the chemical load as one organism eats another, while the microbeads can block organs or cause asphyxiation.

As I mentioned, the beads enter water through waste treatment facilities and are showing up in high concentrations in the Great Lakes.  The problem is most noticeable downstream from major cities and in the sediments of the St. Lawrence River.  By listing these as toxic in the EPA, we will be able to then take action by demanding consumer products shift their production away from beads and back to traditional sources.  It is the only fair and broad-sweeping option for the problem.  Developing better filtration is theoretical at best, costly, and will certainly lead to a much slower solution.  In addition to that, it rewards producers and punishes the people who pay the freight – taxpayers.

When we were debating the motion in the House I was amazed at the line of questioning from the Conservatives and Liberals who ultimately supported the motion.  One Conservative MP asked me if I was suggesting that the fish he ate at lunch had microbeads in the flesh.  It was clear he did not understand how pollutants can be magnified in a food chain and that it is the chemicals in the fillet he should be concerned about.  A Liberal MP stressed the importance of consumer education which shows that too many of our elected officials are reluctant to tell companies to do anything and place economic interests ahead of public health and environmental protection.

The kicker is that many companies are voluntarily moving away from microbeads.  They can see the writing on the wall as some countries have already legislated a phase out of the micro plastics while numerous states are debating their own measures.  In addition to that, companies like The Body Shop, Lush Cosmetics, and even industry giant Johnson and Johnson likely want no part of the negative press that would accompany digging their feet in the issue.  Finally, in most cases it is just a matter of returning to time tested ingredients like baking soda to provide grit in toothpaste,

As an MP with a constituency that includes parts of both Lake Superior and Lake Huron I felt compelled to speak to the motion.  In my opinion it only makes common sense to address problems as they arise and to do our very best as stewards to make sure the environment is not run down on our watch.  It seems like common sense, but there are days when it appears like that could be an endangered quality in parliament.  The motion did receive all party support, but unless the government actually acts on it, microbeads will be floating around in our lake, in greater concentrations year after year.