Since the 1990s, when cosmetic manufacturers started using plastic microbeads as abrasives in facial and body scrubs, and other personal care products, users of these products have been rinsing plastic microspheres down the drain with careless abandon. A single container of a personal hygiene product can contain 300,000 or more microbeads. Their small size—approximately 0.5 microns—allows them to pass through the filtration systems of typical water treatment plants and flow into the rivers and other freshwater bodies. The consequences have been dramatic.
These microbeads can attract toxic pollutants and can be consumed by fish, birds and other wildlife. Concentrations as high as 1.1 million microbeads per square kilometer have been found in the Great Lakes, the world’s largest source of freshwater.