Microbeads on Penny
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Finding Plastics in Unexpected Places

by Avery Hildebrand,
Regional Manager - Southeast Metro

It goes without saying that plastic is one of only a few materials that has changed the course of human history. From medical breakthroughs to food packaging, it swept our collective imagination and made what was once unthinkable 70 years ago part of our everyday lives. Because of the countless uses and ability to make our lives easier we dove straight in, producing more than 8 billion metric tons to date. Now, most of that 8 billion tons of plastic has been discarded and is slowly breaking apart into smaller and smaller bits.

Back in 2015, Minnesota took the lead and attempted to pass a ban on plastic microbeads found in many personal care products, including as an exfoliant in some facial scrubs and toothpastes. These manufactured microplastics are able to pass through wastewater treatment facilities and have easily found their way into our waters. Even though the Minnesota Legislature wasn’t able to pass the ban, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s report on the shocking frequency of microbeads and their ability to absorb toxins in the environment helped to push this issue into the national spotlight.

Not long after 2015, the Obama Administration signed a federal ban on microbeads found in personal care products that took effect in July of 2017. This was a heavy lift but we are far from solving the problem of microplastics in our environment. In fact, we are now finding that microplastics are so pervasive that they are showing up in our tap water, beer, and even our food. Yes, microplastics in other consumer products and microfibers from fleece are huge contributors to this problem but they are not the only culprits. Plastic that has been discarded through litter, natural disasters like floods and hurricanes, and landfills have been breaking apart piece by piece for decades and all of these sources combined are creating a threat to human health and Minnesota’s water.

The problem may seem overwhelming but we can work together to find a fix. Here are two important steps that need to be taken to address this issue. Like microbeads in personal care products, we need swift action from our leaders to tackle this emerging issue before the problem grows well beyond repair. The Minnesota State Legislature should take steps to help increase recycling and composting rates and reduce the overall amount of waste disposed by allowing cities and counties to make their own decisions about reducing plastic in their own community. Secondly, there are steps you can take as an individual to phase unnecessary plastics out of your life. Here’s a great article from Minnesota Public Radio to get you moving in the right direction.

Next time you drink some water, sip a beer, or take a bite of your walleye, you shouldn’t have to wonder if it contains microplastics. If this bothers you I encourage you to take a moment to learn more about this issue and contact your local leaders to share your concerns. If you’re in the South Metro and want to learn more about this issue or how you can help feel free to contact me:  avery@conservationminnesota.org.