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Plastic Beads of Fish Food
December 20, 2013 8:16 AM   Subscribe

    "Tiny plastic beads used in hundreds of toiletries like facial scrubs and toothpastes are slipping through water treatment plants and turning up by the tens of millions in the Great Lakes. " (NYT)
This new environmental threat is particularly worrisome because the beads float and look like fish's normal food. The toxins in the beads tend to degrade slowly, so they bioaccumulate and are passed up the food chain. The majority of the beads appear to enter the lakes when storms cause wastewater treatment plants to overflow.
posted by DoubleLune (54 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
All things considered
posted by czytm at 8:30 AM on December 20, 2013


I always wonder about this kind of stuff. Wastewater treatment, like recycling, is far from perfect.
posted by cman at 8:37 AM on December 20, 2013


Oh God. Please don't take away the plastic beads in my facial scrubs.
posted by Flashman at 8:40 AM on December 20, 2013


Why do we even have wastewater treatment plants that can overflow? Wikipedia says that combined sewer systems that take runoff water along with sewer water and can therefore overflow in storms, were built in the early 1900s and are no longer built. Why haven't we shut down and replaced the ones still being used? What's the use of a wastewater treatment plant if it can just dump all the sewage into our waterways whenever there's a big storm?
posted by eye of newt at 8:44 AM on December 20, 2013


Oh God. Please don't take away the plastic beads in my facial scrubs.

You too good for walnut shells?

Why do we even have wastewater treatment plants that can overflow?

Because rain exists, and infinite-capacity holding tanks don't?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:48 AM on December 20, 2013 [12 favorites]


There are plastic beads as big as a period on a newspaper page in toothpaste? Really? That can't be right, can it?
posted by jbickers at 8:48 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh God. Please don't take away the plastic beads in my facial scrubs.

Can be replaced by natural products such as ground up walnut shells, apricot shells, kiwi seeds...
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:48 AM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


> Why haven't we shut down and replaced the ones still being used?

They are built under and are intertwined with the cities, so I assume it'd be incredibly expensive and require shutting down and ripping up large chunks of the cities in question. And what do you do with the sewage while the old system is replaced? I suspect it's a very hard problem, if not actually unfeasible.
posted by gilrain at 8:50 AM on December 20, 2013


Why do we even have wastewater treatment plants that can overflow?

Because infrastructure funding isn't unlimited, and in most locales these days, it's non-existant. There's a sewer line that runs under pretty much every single street in every city. That's an incredible amount of pipe to either replace with a larger size, or to install a dedicated storm sewer system.

The systems were originally sized for their design year storm, with the understanding that it was acceptable for the system to overflow about once every 50 or 100 years, rather than double or triple the construction cost to contain that rare event. However, it seems that climate change is making the 50-year design storm of the early 1900s the 10- or 20-year storm today.
posted by hwyengr at 9:01 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Salt or sugar work reasonably well as an alternative in case the commercial scrubs that don't use plastic are out of your budget. They do dissolve quickly, though, so can be suboptimal for that. Sand won't dissolve, but can clog your pipes unless you use it sparingly. And then there are plenty of sponges and such on the market with varying degrees of scrubbiness, and those are even generally reusable.

IOW, they need to get this shit off the market yesterday.
posted by asperity at 9:03 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why haven't we shut down and replaced the ones still being used?
Because the cost would be unimaginably vast. I've read that the sewage systems in most UK (where I live) cities can never be replaced under the current economic model. Cities like London are spending colossal sums on patches and work-arounds. Starting anew with a better design would be the most expensive civil engineering project ever undertaken by a very long stretch.

There are some suprising odd workarounds in use for inadequate sewers. The tallest building in the world (burj khalifa) disposes of all its sewage by road for example.
posted by samworm at 9:04 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


You too good for walnut shells?

When I was young, olive oil and a bronze scraper would good enough for anyone, even the Divine Augustus! Now you kids want beads!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:05 AM on December 20, 2013 [25 favorites]


I never understood how those tiny little beads could actually DO anything. There are so few of them, it doesn't seem possible that they could scour anywhere near the entire surface of your face or teeth. A scrub brush does the same exact thing, only successfully. They're just a gimmick, right?
posted by orme at 9:08 AM on December 20, 2013


Trying to find a nice facial wash without all that plastic crap was a huge pain a couple of years ago when I found out about this problem. My solution was the "Every Man Jack" brand but there are probably more options available now.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:14 AM on December 20, 2013


Orme, they may be a gimmick, but I'd be darned if my crater-scarred face doesn't *feel* smoother. Of course, that's totally subjective, just like Olay promising to restore your skin to perfection.
posted by lineofsight at 9:16 AM on December 20, 2013


Standard table salt not only does the same thing, it's also a natural antiseptic. Plus, you can mix it into your cleanser/face wash at exactly the concentration you require.

having used salt this way for years, I'm out of touch with current products. I thought they were all poppy seeds and crushed walnut kernels. Plastic?! I'm not sure why but that squicks me out a bit.
posted by greenish at 9:19 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I was young, olive oil and a bronze scraper would good enough for anyone

How would one find a bronze scraper object (doesn't need to be bronze) in the United States?
posted by tilde at 9:24 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


How would one find a bronze scraper object (doesn't need to be bronze) in the United States?

The Romans called theirs a strigil. Here's a lovely hand-made one.
posted by jedicus at 9:32 AM on December 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


How would one find a bronze scraper object (doesn't need to be bronze) in the United States?

Isn't silver supposed to be naturally antibacterial anyway?
posted by stormpooper at 9:33 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The main reason combined sewers overflow is they were not built to handle nearly as much water as we currently waste. They were build when cities had much lower populations, and generally have not been replaced as cities have grown and grown. Increase the amount of water used in a limited area that much, and it's just out of the range of the initial plan.

It's interesting to look at Philly as a case study. The sewer system is adequate to handle wastewater during the dry season, but not the wet season. One of the main strategies is to reduce the amount of stormwater that goes into the sewer lines. In a suburban area, much of the water would soak into the soil, although a certain amount goes into the sewer systems as runoff from concrete surfaces. In the city, the majority of precipitation goes into the sewer system because there's so little available soil surfaces remaining. The Phila Water Dept is working on a Great Streets Program that uses various strategies to guide rainwater to the soil, where it can trickle down.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:42 AM on December 20, 2013


hwyengr: The systems were originally sized for their design year storm, with the understanding that it was acceptable for the system to overflow about once every 50 or 100 years, rather than double or triple the construction cost to contain that rare event. However, it seems that climate change is making the 50-year design storm of the early 1900s the 10- or 20-year storm today.
I'm pretty far from an expert, but I believe the combined system in Cleveland overflows directly into the lake a few times every summer (during the most severe thunderstorms), and has done so my whole life. Lake Erie beaches put up warnings or outright swimming bans for several days after such a release.

They're working on it, though. This page has a simple diagram that shows how a combined sewer works and talks about some of the mitigation measures being undertaken. In short, the goal is to guide rainwater back to the water supply without a trip through the sewer, thereby easing the load on the sewer and preventing it from overflowing as often.

You'd think that those soft plastic bristle brushes, or something like them, would scrub about the way beads do.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:02 AM on December 20, 2013


Stop using those microbead facial scrubs! And the walnut shell scrubs! Physical exfoliation is terrible for your face, anyway. BHA / AHA chemical exfoliation is where it's at. But PUT THAT LEMON DOWN.
posted by nicebookrack at 10:12 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


Oh God. Please don't take away the plastic beads in my facial scrubs.

Oh God. PLEASE switch to a salt or sugar scrub and stop adding to the contamination of the fucking lakes! I've already had to give up going fishing for Walleye, Perch, and Bass around here years ago, because the lakes are so polluted that it has become dangerous to eat the fish, and we have several "no swim" orders every summer because of pollutant levels. Can we please stop piling on more? It's fucking with our water supply.

These damned beads have been a concern for people who live near the Great Lakes for years.
posted by MissySedai at 10:13 AM on December 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


Somehow I think Flashman's comment was meant to be sarcastic. At least, that's kind of how I thought it, because Christ, why can't we even give up the useless shit? I understand that people have a hard time choosing between cool stuff and the environment, but this isn't even cool stuff. This is stupid stuff. There's no reason to put anything into a body wash that can't degrade nicely in the water supply. Why would you even do that? I can't believe these possibly have any more scrubbing effect than just using a washcloth.
posted by Sequence at 10:20 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Trying to find a nice facial wash without all that plastic crap was a huge pain a couple of years ago when I found out about this problem. My solution was the "Every Man Jack" brand but there are probably more options available now.

A dear friend of mine started a soap company a few years ago, and makes the most amazing sugar and shea butter scrub. All of her stuff is handmade, no SLS, and no godsbedamned plastic beads. I keep three or four different scents around at any given time, but she makes unscented as well.

Memail me if you want a link.

posted by MissySedai at 10:46 AM on December 20, 2013


"Expensive" isn't a strong enough word for the cost to tear up your existing combined sewer system and replace it with separate sanitary and stormwater networks. "Ruinious" comes closer.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:40 AM on December 20, 2013


Soap and water always worked just fine for me .

THE ONION: New Skin Cream To Do Something
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:46 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Because rain exists, and infinite-capacity holding tanks don't?

Rain never needs to enter a sanitary sewer system when there is a separate storm drain system.

A better answer is, because there are still some cities with combined systems. And they should be upgraded.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:01 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why do we even have wastewater treatment plants that can overflow? Wikipedia says that combined sewer systems that take runoff water along with sewer water and can therefore overflow in storms, were built in the early 1900s and are no longer built. Why haven't we shut down and replaced the ones still being used? What's the use of a wastewater treatment plant if it can just dump all the sewage into our waterways whenever there's a big storm?

The problem ultimately comes down to the fact that most sewer systems were built to prevent disease like cholera and other forms of dysentery. It was a huge triumph to get wastewater into pipes instead of in the streets. The occasional overflow is a pain in the ass, but it really doesn't affect public health.

The treatment plants aren't the problem so much as storage space. Given enough time, they can process the water. Storing the water until it can be processed is the problem (especially since wastewater processing is mostly just letting the water sit for a while until it clears out). A one inch rain in Cook County, IL, drops 16.4 billion gallons of water on the community. That is a LOT of water- 2.2 billion cubic feet.

It wouldn't take *too* much effort to build a reservoir of that size. The problem is locating it somewhere that will be the lowest point in the sewer system. Because pumping 16 billions of gallons of water an hour is nearly impossible- that's about 12 times the average flow rate of Niagara Falls.

And that's just a regular old rainstorm going for one hour. Up the rate or lengthen the time, and you can see what an engineering nightmare sewage perfection would be.
posted by gjc at 12:05 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Expensive" isn't a strong enough word for the cost to tear up your existing combined sewer system and replace it with separate sanitary and stormwater networks. "Ruinious" comes closer.

Maybe in London it would be, but not every community with CSOs in the US is a dense, old city.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:07 PM on December 20, 2013


A better answer is, because there are still some cities with combined systems. And they should be upgraded.

A more elegant approach than digging up every street in every city and doubling the number of sewer lines would be to find something else to do with rainwater before it ever gets into the sanitary sewers.
posted by gjc at 12:10 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


But that doesn't solve the original problem: the tiny beads are in the sanitary system already and the sewage plants can't or aren't getting them out of the water.
posted by gjc at 12:15 PM on December 20, 2013


but not every community with CSOs in the US is a dense, old city.

Dense, maybe not. But old, definitely (on the American time scale). If it was a new city, it would have storm sewers.

I can't tell for sure without a list, but the dots include Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, and every city in Ohio. None of those places seem to be flush with cash these days.

...something else to do with rainwater before it ever gets into the sanitary sewers.

I like Chicago's approach to this one. They're installing flow restrictors in the storm drains to delay the deluge at the treatment plant. The streets may flood, but at least the basements won't.
posted by hwyengr at 12:16 PM on December 20, 2013


Minneapolis separated 95% of their system, aided by state and federal funds.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:26 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why do we even have wastewater treatment plants that can overflow?

There is this meta-filter of money and the real-filter of physics like land or building a large enough tank.

Why haven't we shut down and replaced the ones still being used?

Because doing such takes money and that money has to come from someone called Taxpayers.

Ever tried to get money out of taxpayers?

If you want the answer to your question - how much are you willing to pay from your own pocket to pay for the shutdown and new plant? How about that new plant location - you willing to give up the land you "own" to place the new plant? How about if the new plant location is a block away downwind - is the attitude going to be "Oh, ok. That other plant was old so sure, a new plant is needed." Or would the attitude be different than that?
posted by rough ashlar at 12:44 PM on December 20, 2013


They're just a gimmick, right?

Best ask the people in the thread who've asked that the beads not be taken away.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:46 PM on December 20, 2013


BEES?!
posted by exit at 12:46 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Rain never needs to enter a sanitary sewer system when there is a separate storm drain system.

But given that rain washes the fish-killing herbicides and oil from cars into such a drain system - where do you propose to have that storm drain system go if not into the very same lake?
posted by rough ashlar at 12:50 PM on December 20, 2013


True, that is a problem. Anything the water picks up on the way down to the storm drain will end up in the lake, or river, and eventually an ocean.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:12 PM on December 20, 2013


That's why the EPA is trying (pretty damned hard, I might say) to get cities to retain stormwater - and maybe even re-use it, although that's a bit dicier - rather than just letting it flow across asphalt and treated lawns and roofs and everything else that's covered in pollution before it hits a river or lake.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:16 PM on December 20, 2013


So there's a few things to consider here:

1. Many old cities have combined sewers by design. Since they were dumping everything into the nearest lake or stream, it didn't matter if you mingled the stormwater (which was likely contaminated with horseshit and in many cases people shit) with actual sewage. Even cities that did have separate systems and treated their sewage frequently had relief overflows that dumped sewage into the river when the system gets overloaded.

2. A completely sealed sanitary sewer system that does not admit rainwater/groundwater does not exist. A sewer system in a large city of any age was likely built before gasketed joints, seals and of varying quality in workmanship. Consequently, there are a million places for groundwater to get in, not to mention the illegal roof leader connections, manholes sitting in the middle of streams that guarantee a huge spike in sewage volume whenever it rains.

3. There are pretty good alternatives to replacing sewers. Cured in place lining costs about $30-50/ft to line your standard 8" residential sewer. To seal the connection between your house and the main is about $1000 each. To dig up and replace these things probably costs around $200/ft once you figure in paving and some other costs. But considering that even a mid-size city will have several thousand miles of these sewers, you're still looking at billions of dollars before you factor in all the incidental construction expenses that go along with a project of that scale. If you decide you want to tunnel to minimize the disruption, you're looking costs of an order of magnitude higher. $1000-2000/ft, depending on conditions.

4. Many, if not most, municipal water and wastewater departments are supported solely through water and sewer service fees. Huge increases in capital costs would require huge increases in the cost of service.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 1:30 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Expensive" isn't a strong enough word for the cost to tear up your existing combined sewer system and replace it with separate sanitary and stormwater networks. "Ruinous" comes closer.

St. Louis just started the process, prompted by threats of massive fines from the EPA if it didn't. It will cost $4.7 billion over 23 years (not counting any possible cost overruns or delays). That's $204 million per year for a sewer district whose total annual budget was about $336 million. From a consumer perspective it will roughly double the cost of sewer service. I would say that's a serious expense rather than a ruinous one, but either way it must be done. The current system puts about 13 billion gallons of sewer overflow into streams and rivers every year and the problem was only getting worse.
posted by jedicus at 1:50 PM on December 20, 2013


Minneapolis separated 95% of their system, aided by state and federal funds.

An interesting side benefit of this separation means that Minneapolis no longer has to pay St. Paul's Pig's Eye Waste Treatment Plant to treat the overflow, and the cost savings will pay for the Minneapolis integration over (a long) time.
posted by lstanley at 1:51 PM on December 20, 2013


I figured the inclusion of those annoying little plastic beads in certain body washes was the result of some shady boardroom deal with a petroleum derivatives producer stuck with too much seasonal inventory or something, because some formulas actually leave you less clean (my wife bought me some of the Dove men's body wash variety with microbeads and the stuff was worse than useless--the little plastic beads just stick to your skin and get tangled up in your hair).
posted by saulgoodman at 2:36 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The human race continues to impress. There is literally nothing we can do right, including cleaning our greasy stupid fucking faces.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:47 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Those things are PLASTIC?! I always figured they were some kind of additive with some buzzword attached to it (e.g. "HydroTech Exfolibeads" etc), like Tapioca pudding, or Orbitz.

Seriously, what if that shit gets in your eyes? Or worse places? Plastic doesn't belong there! It does not dissolve like the soap-product in which it floats!

And yeah, that doesn't even touch on the environmental impact, what with all that getting into the water but SERIOUSLY PLASTIC IN YOUR EYES

Fucking seriously.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 4:03 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the idea that they'd use plastic beads when they needed to add some abrasive compound to soap is incredibly stupid. It's like the whole disintegrating plastic problem wasn't bad enough so they were like "Why wait for it to break down and end up in our water? Why don't we just break it down first and then put it in a product which is put directly into the water after use? It's genius!". I'm really sad to hear that measurements in the great lakes are apparently up there with the ocean garbage gyres.

As far as the combined sewage stuff, here in Milwaukee we have "The Deep Tunnel Project". Exact cost isn't immediately apparent, but it was part of a $3 billion pollution abatement program started in the late 70s. It is a series of (you'll never guess) tunnels 300 ft deep under the city made with a tunnel boring machine. Despite a capacity of over 400 million gallons, we still get occasional overflows of a much smaller magnitude. People complain that there's ever overflows, as if it "isn't working" when it gets overwhelmed, but it's saved over 100 billion gallons of combined sewage from being dumped over the years.

One of the other simple and sensible things they've done is subsidize the production and sale of rain barrels, because every house that has a rain barrel is 55 gal less stormwater to treat. Some of them are made as part of the Milwaukee Community Service Corps, as well.
posted by nTeleKy at 4:33 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Are they BPA free?
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:15 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


samworm: "The tallest building in the world (burj khalifa) disposes of all its sewage by road for example."

That was a temporary measure while infrastructure improvements rolled out and I think has now been eliminated though I can only find stories linking to the original Slate article on the situation from 2010.
posted by Mitheral at 7:38 PM on December 20, 2013


If you find walnut or other fruit/nut seeds too harsh, try bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). A half tablespoon or so with some facial soap and rub gently. Works really well!
posted by Alnedra at 10:01 PM on December 20, 2013


Aren't facial scrubs at least supposed to use tiny pebbles rathe than plastics? Why do the plastics work better? Also, what do they do in toothpaste? Are they gentler on the skin and teath than pebbles?
posted by jeffburdges at 7:15 AM on December 21, 2013


I like Chicago's approach to this one. They're installing flow restrictors in the storm drains to delay the deluge at the treatment plant. The streets may flood, but at least the basements won't.

Chicago's done a lot more than that -- Deep Tunnel, more formerly known as the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, was built to act as a sewer of last resort. If a storm is overloading the sewers, the waste water can be dumped into the deep tunnels and then pumped out later, treated and released.

It was a very expensive workaround, but far cheaper than trying to rip out the combined sanitary/storm sewer system and replace it with two separate systems. I honestly think that a mission to Mars, starting from a clean sheet of paper, would be cheaper. I'm dead certain that a manned moon landing would be.
posted by eriko at 10:11 AM on December 21, 2013


I like Chicago's approach to this one. They're installing flow restrictors in the storm drains to delay the deluge at the treatment plant. The streets may flood, but at least the basements won't.


unless you're near the DesPlaines river. Then you're fucked.
posted by stormpooper at 7:28 AM on December 23, 2013


If a storm is overloading the sewers, the waste water can be dumped into the deep tunnels and then pumped out later, treated and released.

DC is doing something similar with their combined sewers. The EPA is moving towards more and more aggressive regulations for storm water systems. I live in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and most municipalities just had to establish a storm water fee to mitigate storm water runoff. It's not clear that treatment of stormwater will be the end result, but it's possible.
posted by Ham Snadwich at 3:24 PM on December 26, 2013


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