In 2015, the ECO reported on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. In particular, the ECO focused on “microplastics” – plastic particles less than 5 millimetres in diameter. Our report explained that Lakes Erie and Ontario are filled with millions of tiny plastic particles that could cause a wide range of problems for the organisms that live in the lakes, including potentially introducing toxic substances into the food chain.
One source of microplastic pollution that has received a lot of attention is the microbeads used in personal care products, such as exfoliants in body washes and smoothing agents that give creams and other products a silky texture. Microbeads pose a unique problem as they are designed to wash away with the bathwater, after which they pass through wastewater treatment systems and discharge directly into waterways.
In the ECO’s 2015 article, we noted the federal government’s commitment to propose adding microbeads to the list of toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. On June 29, 2016, the Government of Canada announced that microbeads had been added to the list. As a result, it is now open to the federal government to make regulations prohibiting the manufacture, import and sale of products containing microbeads, which it previously said it intends to do.
Addressing the microplastic problem is especially hard because of the wide range of sources of plastic pollution (fibers from synthetic fabric, litter, etc.), each requiring a different strategy. While removing microbeads from cosmetic products is a significant step, there are many other sources of pollution still in need of attention. In fact, recent research indicates that most Great Lakes microplastic pollution comes from the breakdown of larger plastic items (most likely, improperly disposed of garbage), as well as plastic fibres from clothing. The microplastic problem will only be solved when these sources are also addressed. You can learn more about the ECO’s ideas on what can be done here.