Emerging Pollutants:  Microbeads

By Cody Primmer

Wells College Intern, Spring 2015

 Plastics pollution is a huge issue in our oceans and has a directly negative effect on our environment. When we think of pollution from plastic, we usually think first of larger items such as plastic bottles, wrapping films (i.e., candy wrappers), grocery bags etc. Other than the obvious fact that all of these items contain some percentage of plastic, they all share one more common characteristic. They are all visible to the naked eye. Now, what if there was a type of plastic that could go undetected by the human eye, but was able to cause just as much, if not more harm than larger plastics?

Unfortunately, that “what if” statement is the sad truth, as demonstrated by members of the group Plastic Tides. Ithaca locals and Plastic Tides members Christian Shaw and Gordon Middleton took on the task of increasing knowledge of the danger facing our water close to home. I recently got the chance to ask the guys at Plastic Tides a couple of questions regarding their work on the topic of “Microbeads.”

To bring more attention to the problem of microbeads, last winter Shaw and Middleton took to their paddle boards and set out on an eleven day tour of Cayuga Lake, Seneca Lake, Oneida Lake and the Erie Canal to collect water samples that would be tested for microbeads, small pieces of plastic between .3mm-.5mm in diameter. These are used in cosmetic products such as face-wash exfoliates.  Companies have been using plastic beads because they are cost effective and can be customized by the manufacturer.

From the samples taken on their tour, evidence of the microbeads was indeed found in our waters. Microbeads are able to enter our waterways through simply being flushed down the drain by consumers. Due to the small size of microbeads they are able to go through wastewater treatment plants undetected and untreated. Wastewater treatment plants generally filter water using screens that are either coarse (6mm) or fine (1.5mm-6mm). As a result microbeads are able exit these plants through the effluent flow and enter into streams, lakes, etc.  Another major source of this pollution is from municipal wastewater in leach fields (private septic) where microbeads enter directly into the ground onsite. It is still unclear how they travel in groundwater.


According to the guys at Plastic Tides, the risks associated with microbeads are “Fairly undocumented at this point.” They continue, “we know they [microbeads] accumulate pollutants on their surface and we know fish and other animals are eating them…There is no way they can be good for our environment. We think they should be re-named “toxic-balls” because that is what they truly are.”

As for the risk of drinking water contamination, water plant filtration measures are more stringent and thus the risk is low, but has not been studied specifically. However, Plastic Tides asserts that the risk is there, and suggests that those with their own water systems along the lake could be at a higher risk of accidentally ingesting microbeads.

Jack Rueckheim, Bolton Point Municipal Water System General Manager, told the Ithaca Journal, “As long as all of the normal treatment processes are effective, this risk is pretty small.” Regardless of whether the risk is high or low, microbeads are a huge concern for water pollution. According to the results from the water samples taken on the paddle board tour, on average there are 15,000 micro-beads per square kilometer.


Dr. Sherri Mason, Professor of Chemistry, SUNY Fredonia, is “poised at the forefront of research on plastic pollution within freshwater ecosystems.” Working with the 5 Gyres Institute, Dr. Mason has “found plastic particles within all 5 of the Great Lakes. The counts obtained, especially those within Lakes Erie and Ontario, rival those within the world's ocean. Even further, what surprised us the most is the size of the particles we found. To date ~70% of the plastic we skim off the surface of the Great Lakes is between one third and one millimeter in diameter. Tiny,” according to her web page (see Additional Information, below).

The best way to prevent microbeads from entering our water system is to ban them from consumer products immediately. Based on the work that Plastic Tides and other similar organizations have done in regards to plastic pollution in our waters, NYS Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has proposed legislation banning plastic microbeads in commonly used cosmetic products. Many natural alternatives can be used instead, such as almond shells, walnut shells, coffee grounds, etc. Please see Additional Information below for more about Schneiderman’s and others’ findings.

Plastics Tides’ cold-weather paddle board tour has helped bring awareness to the microbead issue, and if you’re confused as to why they decided to travel in frigid temperatures, co-founder Christian Shaw said, “People wouldn’t take as much notice of people paddle boarding the Erie Canal in July.” Plastic Tides plans on continuing their research this summer on Cayuga Lake, where they will be doing similar sampling, acquiring more data points to better understand the extent of the plastic pollution. Some of the work will be done in conjunction with a summer Internship/camp program at Myers Park in Lansing. You can learn more about Plastic Tides at their Facebook page.

Additional Information

“Unseen Threat:  How Microbeads Harm New York Waters, Wildlife, Health And Environment. 2014. Office of Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General of New York State.

Professor Sherri Mason, SUNY Fredonia: http://www.fredonia.edu/chemistry/Faculty/Mason.asp.

Erikson, M., S. A. Mason, S. Wilson, C. Box, A. Zellers, W. Edwards, H. Farley, and S. Amato, ‘Microplastic Pollution in the Surface Waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes,’ Marine Pollution Bulletin,77, 177, 2013.