Microbeads in soaps and personal care products are designed to be washed down the drain. And because they can’t be filtered out, microbeads are causing some serious damage to our lakes and rivers.
The obvious question is, “how do we get rid of them?” Unfortunately the answer isn’t encouraging.
Once in the water, microbeads can’t be removed. So the most important thing is to stop microbeads from entering the water in the first place.
The Canadian Government agrees and is working towards a microbeads ban. But this process isn’t as straightforward as you would think.
Adding microbeads to the List of Toxic Substances
The very first step in developing a ban is to have microbeads added to the List of Toxic Substances, which is a part of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
On August 1, 2015, the Government of Canada released an Order proposing that microbeads be added to this List. The Order was based on the scientific evidence proving microbeads’ toxicity and published in the Canada Gazette. Here, the Government mentions its intent to develop regulations banning the import, sale and manufacture of microbeads.
Now when I first read all of this three weeks ago, I thought this was a win (we were the ones who wanted microbeads on the List, after all). But I quickly realized that there’s a long journey before anything is officially “won,” or lost for that matter.
How a “toxic” substance can still threaten Canadian waters
I started my education as a biology student, so I often struggle with how the law, and environmental law in particular, operates.
Microbeads have proven to be toxic. The Canadian Government has acknowledged this and has expressed its intent to ban microbeads. So shouldn’t that mean more microbeads won’t enter Canadian waters? It could. But also could not. And it all depends on how strong the ban is.
I should stress that the addition of microbeads to the List in of itself is a good thing. It needs to happen for any effective ban to be put in place. But what concerns me is the wording surrounding the actual Order, which outlines some of the parameters of this proposed ban.
In all, Waterkeeper has three major concerns with the ban, outlined in our response to the Government.
- There are many sources of microbeads this proposed ban ignores
The Government of Canada proposes only to ban those microbead-containing products that are considered “personal care products used to cleanse or exfoliate.”
The problem is that there are many different sources of microbeads. The Government of Canada’s science summary itself states that there are microbeads in a variety of consumer products and industrial applications.
This makes me wonder, if there are so many potential sources of microbeads, why is the Government so fixated on this one specific source? Has all of the media attention obscured other, potentially significant, sources of microbeads?
- Microbeads have the potential to cause great harm to human health
The Government’s science report covered only environmental effects of microbeads and explicitly disregarded any potential effects to human health. Toxins and pathogens can attach themselves to microbeads, and transferring to animals that people come into contact with (including the food we eat). Some of these toxins have devastating effects on humans, including causing cancer and birth defects.
- Harmonizing with US regulations could do more harm than good
Finally, the Government of Canada intends to make Canada’s microbead ban mirror the U.S.’s microbead regulations. This is to create a “level playing field” for international corporations. What is particularly dangerous is that many American regulations are riddled with loopholes. We don’t want Canada’s ban to be lowered to the lowest common denominator of ineffective U.S. regulations.
What can you do to support an effective microbead ban?
If you want to stay involved throughout the development of a microbeads ban, there are several things you can do to help.
- Stop purchasing microbead-containing products
Sign our pledge and use Beat the Microbead for lists of products containing microbeads. When in doubt, use our Rule of Thumb. The fewer microbeads entering our lakes and rivers, the better.
- Get involved and participate in the consultation period during the ban’s development process
The Government of Canada stated that interested parties will be invited to participate, to ensure an “open and transparent” process. If you’re interested in getting involved with this consultation, you can.
- Submit comments
The Government of Canada has indicated that they will pre-publish proposed regulations banning microbeads in 2016. These will again be published in the Canada Gazette and after they are published, there is a statutory consultation period in which written comments can be submitted in response to the proposed ban.
What happens next?
The next step is a data collection period. Parties utilizing microbeads must provide information on their use and manufacture of microbeads. There will also be consultation with interested parties, including Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.
These consultations and continuing investigations will help to inform the development of the microbeads ban, to be published some time in 2016. After that, there will be another consultation period before the ban can begin to be implemented.
While there are many concerns with the process moving forward, I should reiterate that the addition of microbeads to the List of Toxic Substances is good. This a necessary first step. But in order for there to be success, there have to be positive second, third, and fourth steps as well.
Waterkeeper will stay actively involved in the process – to ensure the concerns that might arise throughout the process are voiced. You can get updates by subscribing to the (free) bi-weekly newsletter.
This is my first project since joining Waterkeeper as a legal practicum student and it’s taught me a lot. If you want to make a difference in protecting the waters we depend on, it’s going to take some perseverance. There are many opportunities to voice your concerns and help shape the laws that protect our environment. You just have to seize them.
Read through our submission below.