Microbeads: And Other Foolish Ideas

by Ray Grigg

The use of plastic microbeads as abrasives in hundreds of products ranging from face washes to toothpaste must be one of the more foolish ideas ever conceived by marketers and manufacturers. About the size of grains of sand, these indestructible tidbits of plastic get flushed down drains to enter rivers, lakes and oceans at a rate of about 8 trillion per day in the United States alone; about 800 trillion more per day are collected in wastewater and sewage treatment plants than spread on land in sludge (Watershed Sentinel, Nov., 2015).

It seems inconceivable that anyone would even consider a product that deliberately disperses irretrievable particles of plastic into a world already awash with the toxic stuff.

Granted, a number of companies are now transitioning from plastic microbeads to harmless oatmeal, bamboo, ground apricot pits and powered walnut and pecan shells — an option that was available before they started using microbeads. But their gesture of gradual reform required pressure from some 65 non-governmental organizations from 35 countries and informed consumers, plus legi

Plastic Trash This trash from a New Zealand beach is on its way to becoming bits of microplastic. Joe Dowling, Sustainable Coastlines, Marine Photobank.

slation from governments. Most microbeads may be eliminated from products by 2018.

But this microbead issue raises a much larger and more troubling one. Will marketers and manufacturers do anything to service the needs of consumers — often needs that consumers didn’t even know they had until convinced by advertising and product promotion? Beyond the incentive for profit, what constraining principles operate in the business world? Do entrepreneurs ever consider the consequences of having their products used and consumed? What are the ethical values governing their decision to make a product?

The makers and distributors of tobacco, of course, now find themselves in ethically disreputable territory. Fossil fuel companies producing gas, oil and coal also find themselves transitioning into a new category of ethically dubious products as global climate change gains prominence with worsening weather.

The same applies to forestry. The rationale for logging old growth forests has vanished in concert with the vanishing forests. In our sadder but wiser world, all forestry practices should be transitioning to the principles of ecological preservation and carbon sequestration.

Ocean net-pen salmon farming is also losing its ethical respectability. A profitable idea decades ago is looking less acceptable as the ramifications and complications of this industry multiply. As viruses proliferate and mutate in the densely populated net-pens, and as sea lice develop immunity to the conventional prophylactics, more toxic and extreme measures must be taken to make their operations viable. The spread of lice and viruses to wild stocks has meant stringent constraints on European operations. Not yet so in British Columbia.

In scientific journals, hidden behind the glowing self-promotion of the salmon farming industry, are rumblings of concern and trouble. Farmed salmon, increasingly sick and contagious with lice and viruses, unfortunately inhabit the same ocean commons that grows our wild salmon, shrimp, crabs and shellfish. This inherent incompatibility needs to be remedied.

If the profit motive of any industry is to be respected and endorsed in a modern society, it must function within the context of human and environmental ethics. Some products, such as microbeads, were never a good idea. Others lose their legitimacy over time. Progress, like profits, should be guided by ethics.