All Commentary
Thursday, October 29, 2015

Should We Ban Microbeads?

The science isn't clear, but activists are stampeding


Environmental extremists thrive off creating public frenzies about how private corporations are destroying our lives. The latest frenzy concerns microbeads in products like facial cleansers and toothpaste. A few studies have documented how waste-water treatment plants are having a hard time filtering out these super tiny pieces of plastic, which could conceivably end up in lakes and rivers and be consumed by fish.

It seems like a reasonable concern, though it is hard to gauge precisely how serious it really is. These beads are miniscule. To even notice them requires intense focus and specialized tools. It’s not clear what damage they do, and the scientists who are studying this routinely hedge their bets on cause and effect (if not their policy conclusions).

Still, the microbead controversy has all the makings of exactly the kind of morality play that those who seek government product bans are looking for. Look how decadent consumerism is quietly destroying all that is beautiful and pure! Activists don’t care about the costs or benefits; the point is to get government to use force against sinful private industry, regardless.

Therefore, California, Illinois, and New Jersey have already banned such products. There is an active movement for bans in almost every state. It is only a matter of time before Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency gets involved. In fact, a bill has already been introduced: the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.

The website beatthemicrobead.org seems to be the central organizing point for the global anti-bead movement. And yet even this site admits that no one knows for sure how bad microbeads truly are: “The full extent and consequences is [sic] hard to quantify.”

Indeed, the science is unclear on the crucial question of the extent of the harm, if any. The scientists who wrote a 2015 report admit that “there are gaps in our understanding of the precise impact of microbeads on aquatic ecosystem.” Still, they say, “this should not delay action.”

Typically, the scientific uncertainty doesn’t make a difference. One blogger put a fine point on it:

This is just why there is still need for big government, unfortunately. People will do the craziest most destructive things to their fellow humans until they’re forced by draconian laws to stop.

But is that really true? Do we really need “draconian” government action? Already, the bad publicity about microbeads has led companies themselves to remove microbeads from products.

Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble have already decided to phase out their use. The Body Shop, Target, and IKEA have decided to stop carrying them. You can even download a mobile application that tells you whether the product contains them.

You might wonder why they exist in the first place if microbeads are so obviously terrible. Well, in a FAQ on the topic, toothpaste maker Crest explained:

We included these beads in some of Crest’s toothpastes based on the positive feedback from people who use our products. Dental professionals will attest that enjoyable toothpastes generally promote longer brushing time and thus healthier outcomes.

There is also the matter of price. The scrubbing products are far cheaper than the fussier brands that use salts and organic oatmeal. Looking online for alternate scrubs, what you find is a universally higher price.

At the same time, Crest says,

We understand there is a growing preference for us to remove this ingredient. So we will. Crest will continue to provide consumers with effective and enjoyable products which are designed to their preferences.

It’s the same with very popular face scrubs. Consumers like microbeads and so companies began to put them in products. Exfoliating can be fun, especially with affordable products.

But faced with a growing sense that they might not be the best for the environment (or public relations), companies have started to phase them out. It’s not complicated. It’s a matter of demand and supply.

If private companies are removing them and consumers themselves are selecting against them, why the rush to use government regulation and laws? Some people just don’t know any other way. There is no sense of moderation, no thought to other solutions (like tweaking the way treatment plants deal with such beads), and no recognition that this does not have to be an all-or-nothing policy: the optimal amount of microbeads might not be zero.

Another cost of bans is that they are too broad and could rule out innovation in bead technology that is more biodegradable. A spokesman for Johnson & Johnson said California’s law is “overly restrictive, inhibits innovation and does not allow for current and future advancements in biodegradable exfoliate alternatives.”

Another cost of this kind of policy is that it is overly reliant on government in general. The more we ask government to do for us, the more government does to us.

And there is a final matter here too. Water treatment plants and the lakes they use for dumping are themselves government owned and managed. There is a tragedy of the commons that has long been part of such institutions.

If they were privately owned and managed, there would be a greater awareness of the costs associated with processing, and products that cause harm (real harm, not just speculative harm) would face an added burden of proving their social merit.

Product bans growing out of mass hysteria do not show enough faith in the responsiveness of private enterprise and its capacity for dealing with real environmental problems. If there really is a problem to deal with here, the solution is obvious: when people stop buying products with microbeads, companies will stop making them.

In the meantime, if you like cheap scrubs, it might be time to start stockpiling.