For decades, the producers of disposable packaging and products have tried to say it’s our fault that their toxic throwaway junk litters our landscapes, fouls our waters, and kills fish and wildlife. Their most ingenious and insidious effort was the iconic “Crying Indian” ad, which showed a supposedly Native American man (actually, an Italian-American actor) paddling a canoe through a trash-strewn river. As he walks along the shore, a passenger in a passing car throws a bag of trash out the window. A single tear rolls down his cheek as the narrator intones: “People start pollution. People can stop it.”
The ad first aired in 1971 and had a huge impact on a generation awakening to the environmental crisis. We watched it over and over, shared the faux-Indian’s grief, and vowed to make changes in our individual lives to stop pollution. That was exactly what the ad’s creators wanted, since the ad was produced by the garbage-makers themselves.
The ad was part of a strategic effort to brand waste as a problem that should be solved not by stricter regulations, but exclusively by getting individuals to feel responsible and focus on changing their day-to-day habits. The pro-plastics PR guys are still at it. At a recent event in San Francisco, I heard Keith Christman of the American Chemistry Council propose a solution to plastic pollution of the oceans: Just put more recycling bins on beaches. My jaw dropped, but he was right on message: Don’t blame us for making this crap. The problem is the slobs who don’t dispose of it properly.
It’s a lie that has served plastic makers all too well – until now. There’s a new plastic threat that isn’t caused by slobs throwing plastic in the river. In fact, there’s startling evidence that some plastics are actually designed to be washed down the drain right into our waters. Like the guy in The Graduatewho gives Dustin Hoffman career advice, I have one word for you: Microbeads.
My friend Stiv Wilson works for a fantastic organization called 5 Gyres that sails to remote parts of the seas to document plastic debris circulating in ocean currents. The group has found that plastic accumulates in all five major subtropical oceanic gyres in the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean. Sea life can mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and get strangled by them; marine mammals can die of starvation with stomachs full of plastic. And of course what gets into sea creatures can end up on our dinner plates.
Wilson wondered if plastic debris is accumulating in inland waters. To find out, he connected with scientists at SUNY Fredonia and went trawling in the Great Lakes. To their surprise, the samples they gathered had hundreds of thousands of tiny plastic beads. Where did they come from? Our bathroom showers and sinks.
Shampoos, bath gels, skins creams, and many other products contain microscopic plastic beads to exfoliate the face and body. These beads are so small they wash down the drain, escape wastewater treatment plants and are carried straight to rivers, lakes, and the oceans. For once, plastics manufacturers can’t pin the blame on sloppy or uncaring consumers. Microbeads end up in our waters when the product is used exactly as directed.
But there’s good news: 5 Gyres and its allies have organized a movement to ban these beads. They’ve already gotten commitments from a handful of large manufacturers of personal care products to phase out their use. This should be straightforward, since plastic microbeads can be replaced with natural exfoliants like ground apricot pits or walnut shells.
5 Gyres is working for tougher laws to make microbead bans more widespread and enforceable. Bills have been introduced in California, New York, Illinois, Ohio, and Minnesota to ban the manufacture or sale of products containing microbeads.
Kudos to the companies that have already agreed to get rid of microbeads. But let’s not hold our breath waiting for the entire plastics industry to switch to safer alternatives. As responsible citizens our role is to tell regulators and lawmakers we need to get microbeads off our drugstore shelves, gone from the market, banned. Let’s email, call, or tweet them to let them know we won’t be buying their products anymore. But we can’t stop there. If we leave it up to the industry alone, their response is likely to be as authentic a solution as a phony, crying Indian.