Federal Government’s Microbead Consultation is Open Until March 10

The federal government is moving ahead with a microbead ban that has already gained unanimous support in the House of Commons.

You have until March 10 to have your say on the issue.

The Toronto Star summed up the problem with microbeads last May.

“Tiny pellets found in countless products from toothpaste to lipstick are draining into waterways, harming fish, and spreading toxic chemicals that end up in the food chain,” the paper reported. “The problems begin when they are rinsed out of the mouth or off the face and end up down the drain of the shower or the bathroom sink.”

Microbeads are aptly named—they’re so small that they pass through the filters in wastewater treatment plants on their way to river and lake sediments. One research team found more than 1,000 microbeads per litre of sediment at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.The tiny plastic pellets have recently become a popular addition to many personal care products because they are inexpensive abrasives. Unfortunately, just as quickly, they have created a serious and growing problem.

Moving Up the Food Chain

“Once they’re in the water, algae and bacteria grow on the surface of microbeads, which makes them heavy enough to sink to the bottom, and also helps them pick up toxic chemicals floating around in the water,” the Star reported. “Small, bottom-dwelling fish then come along and eat the microbeads in the sediment,” at which point the beads and all the toxics they carry begin to bioconcentrate.

“The plastic makes its way up the food chain, with some eventually ending up on human dinner plates,” the Star noted in a late July update, after the previous federal government introduced its own version of a microbead ban.

“In some waters, the plastic pollution is so thick that animals have started evolving to adapt to the new toxic conditions.”

The Devil in the Details

Several U.S. states have outlawed microbeads, or are considering doing so, and an Ontario legislator proposed a ban in a private member’s bill last March. Last year, as well, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden “all pooled their efforts to call on the European Union to ban microbeads from personal care products, explicitly expressing concern about the possibility of it harming human health by ending up in seafood,” the Star reported.

The Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association reported last year that five of its 14 members had stopped using microbeads, and the rest had committed to do so. They still supported regulation, the Star said, “to make sure one-off products intended for discount markets and counterfeit goods are also free of microbeads.”

That’s all to the good—but when the federal regulation is published, the details will matter. One analysis of state legislation in the U.S. contrasted the approach in Illinois, where “biodegradable” microbeads aren’t even defined, to measures in Connecticut and Maryland, where manufacturers are encouraged to develop truly biodegradable alternatives.

In other jurisdictions, an unfortunate twist is to allow “biodegradable” formulations that will eventually decompose in an industrial composting facility, at high temperatures and controlled pH. “Microbeads that merely meet this standard do not meet the standard of biodegrading in an aquatic environment (where they actually end up),” 5Gyres notes.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC)’s proposed regulation characterizes microbeads by their size, but indicates that the more detailed definition will appear in an appendix at a later date.

Another problem arises, because the Canadian regulations are proposing to allow microbeads that are both bigger and smaller than the United States, raising concerns that Canada will become a dumping ground for the beads that are banned in the United States.

So the conversation isn’t over yet.

Time to Have Your Say

ECCC introduced its proposed microbead regulation February 9, based on expert consultation and a review of more than 130 scientific papers. “The science summary concludes that microbeads are toxic to the environment under subsection 64(a) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999) as they are entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or concentration or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity,” the department stated.

With a formal notice of intent already in place courtesy of the previous government, ECCC opened the one-month consultation period to solicit public and stakeholder feedback on “the economic and technical considerations of the proposal” and “the challenges and needs of small businesses that would be impacted.” The contact form invites comments by email, snail mail, or fax.

Contact Environment and Climate Change Canada today if you have facts or arguments to contribute to the federal microbead consultation. And please send us a copy at membership@sierraclub.ca of anything you write.


Diane Beckett
Interim Executive Director
Sierra Club Canada Foundation

One Earth • One Chance

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