Whether ban extends to so-called ‘biodegradable’ microbeads still to be determined

OTTAWA – In the wake of new evidence that finds microbeads pose a risk to the environment, the federal government has announced that it is poised to classify them as a toxic substance and ban their use in personal care products.

“We are pleased to see the federal government step up and respond to mounting public concern over the continued use of microbeads and their impact on Canada’s rivers, lakes and streams,” said Devon Page, Ecojustice executive director.  “We look forward to the swift introduction of regulations that will bring this ban into force.”

In March, Ecojustice staff lawyer Tanya Nayler, acting on behalf of Environmental Defence, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, and Ottawa Riverkeeper, submitted a formal request asking the government to place microbeads on the Priority Substances List to begin the process of regulating them as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

When cleansers, lotions and toothpastes containing microbeads are used and rinsed down the drain, these bits of plastic — often  1.0 millimetre or smaller in diameter — are too small to be caught by wastewater treatment facilities. Instead, they are flushed directly into lakes, rivers and streams.

Scientists have also found millions of microbeads in parts of the Great Lakes, with the highest concentrations occurring near urban areas. Studies estimate that microbeads make up 20 per cent of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, which provide drinking water to 8.5 million Canadians.

Once they are unleashed into waterways, microbeads can make their way up the food chain. They absorb dangerous pollutants such as PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are already present in the marine environment. When fish, birds and other wildlife ingest these plastics, the harmful pollutants accumulate in species low in the food chain and are passed onto larger predators, eventually contaminating the fish and other wildlife species consumed by humans.

While further details of the ban are still to come, Page said he hopes it will extend to so-called “biodegradable” microbeads.

Some biodegradable plastics only partially degrade, leaving residual fragments to linger in the environment. Other types degrade into various components, including toxic inorganic compounds. Others still take an indeterminate amount of time to degrade in a real-life marine environment (which is often cold and offers little sunlight) and are ingested by wildlife while they are still whole, causing the same harms as synthetic microbeads.

“Let’s make sure we get this ban right the first time and ensure that we are banning all manner of microbeads — including so-called biodegradable ones — from entering Canada’s rivers, lakes and streams,” Page said.

The 60-day public comment period on this matter begins Aug 1.