Fine Plastic fragments in compost (top) and floating plastic found 2012 in Lake Michigan

A frothy storm has been brewing recently as home consumer products are discovered that have micro-bead plastic content designed to give a “lift”. The problem is: they are real downers for aquatic life. A day after the Dec 28 2012 news that Lake Michigan is being clogged with plastic contamination, Unilever announced it will be withdrawing plastic micro-beads from home products like soaps and shampoos, due to “some evidence that they are harmful in oceans” (Editor: the scientific evidence that microplastics are damaging oceans is overwhelming). While many consumers are reacting such as: “I didn’t know there were plastic beads in my shampoo…”  others are demanding faster action on microbeads than proposed by Unilevers 2015 target. “Exfoliating” plastic ingredients are found in other big-brand products (such as Olay, Dove and others). These products share in common the presence of tiny particles of polyethylene intended to help lift dirt from your face: it all then goes down the drain into waste-water, where it is considered too small to be recovered. Some waste-water plants are reacting with information about the fate of micro-beads in their process while others are determining if any are present in measurable amounts at all.

Woods End Laboratories started developing test methods to discern microfine plastics in compost in the 1990’s, a decade in which the compost lobby (USCC) under P&G’s direction was pushing diaper-MSW composting, known to result in metal and plastic-contaminated compost. MSW composting proved ultimately to be unsuccesful for a variety of reasons, and the need for such tests declined. More recently, however, Boulder’s Ecocycle brought attention to microplastic fragments in compost from lab tests of plastic coated paperboard products allowed in “compostable” waste streams.  And Europe has recently updated compost test methods to include scanning techniques for micro-plastic fragments, to raise awareness of the issue. Recently, Washington state’s compost group (WORC) even took a stand against testing for plastic fragments in compost, fearing it would dampen recycling.

It is now well-known that increasing amounts of microplastics are entering the earth’s seas, and the micro-bead issue is just another dimension. Plastic exposed to soil and sunlight may disintegrate into smaller pieces which subsequently end up in waterways and eventually the sea.  Unilever’s action proposed for 2015 may not be an isolated event: other companies  are likely to stand up and take similar action. Whether the interest ever reaches down into the compost and soil industry, remains to be seen.