Exfoliate! Rejuvenate! Invigorate! These phrases are often associated with the gritty soaps and cleansers that consumers buy to scrub away dirt and dead skin cells in a quest for healthy skin, hair, and teeth.

To create the perfect scrubbers, manufacturers have added tiny plastic particles to everyday care products such as facial cleansers, body wash, shaving cream. The idea of tiny, powerful scrubbers has become so popular that toothpaste manufacturers have added them to toothpaste so their product looks more effective.

Those tiny plastic scrubbers are called microbeads.

Some of these minuscule plastic spheres are 5 mm in diameter but most are less than 1 mm – comparable to mustard seeds. When you flush those micro-scrubbers down the drain, they flow to the sewage treatment plant. Because they are so small, the filters at the plant cannot treat them, and those microbeads end up in Lake Ontario.

With an average of 300,000 microbeads found in one common personal care product alone, sewage treatment plants are allowing millions of the plastic particles to freely flow into our lake every day.

How to identify microbeads

Products containing microbeads aren’t always clearly labeled. To check If a product contains microbeads, look at the list of ingredients for an ingredient that starts with “poly.” Poly indicates the ingredient is a form of polymer and has synthetic properties. Commonly listed ingredients are: polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon.

In the last few years, researchers have found large amounts of microbeads in freshwater lakes, the ocean, on shorelines, and in the St. Lawrence River.

These plastics do not break down in the natural environment.  

In addition to polluting waterways, Waterkeeper is concerned for 3 reasons:

  1. Microbeads are in our food chain. Fish and smaller aquatic life are eating microbeads because they mistake the tiny beads for food.
  2. Microbeads are killing smaller aquatic life. Plastic is not digestible. It clogs the intestines of smaller species, causing them to starve.
  3. Microplastics transport toxins and invasive species. Invasive species and toxic substances cling to plastics. When the plastics move around in the water, they transport these nasty things.

In March 2015, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Ottawa Riverkeeper, and Environmental Defence Canada with representation from Ecojustice, recommended that Environment Canada add microbeads to the Priority Substances List, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). This list specifies which substances are given priority in assessing whether they are toxic or capable of becoming toxic. It gives the federal government more power to control the use of these toxic substances in Canada.

In September 2015, the federal government proposed labelling microbeads "toxic" and began a consultation process. In June 2016, that process came to an end and the federal government announced that microbeads would be labeled toxic. A ban is forthcoming.

In March 2015, the House of Commons unanimously voted to add a narrowly-defined type of microbead to the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. In May 2016, Environment and Climate Change Canada announced that it would adopt a broader definition of microbeads thanks in part to comments by Waterkeeper and other members of the public.

On June 29, 2016, the Government of Canada officially listed "microbeads" as toxic substances. The next step is a legal ban on the small plastics in cosmetics and personal care products. 


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