Tiny plastic beads found in face wash, toothpaste and other cosmetics are finding their way into the waters surrounding Vancouver Island and beyond, and that reality is prompting federal politicians to call for their outright ban.
It’s estimated a single tube of facewash contains up to 330,000 plastic bits, and researchers estimate more than 1,400 products available in Canada contain microplastics. They’re often identified on ingredient lists as polyethylene or polypropylene.
Last month, Victoria MP Murray Rankin rose in the House of Commons to justify an NDP-proposed ban on microplastics under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Rankin detailed the growing body of research that shows microplastics are dangerous to the oceanic food chain, and referenced a study completed by researchers at the University of Victoria in collaboration with Peter Ross, a former federal government scientist who now works for the Vancouver Aquarium.
In that study, researchers found plastic microbeads aren’t just in nearby waters, but they’re also polluting environments as far away as Haida Gwaii, where little to no industry exists. Plankton are ingesting the food and dying, Ross concluded.
“Plankton may seem a long way from orcas, but of course they are not,” Rankin told parliamentarians. “If the little creatures that are plankton are finding themselves ingesting microbeads and are unable to survive, and invertebrates that perhaps eat them are also ingesting slightly larger microplastics and they cannot survive, it does not take a scientist to understand that the species at the top of the ladder will have difficult with survival.”
The NDP’s motion passed unanimously with all-party support, and Environment Canada has already launched a microplastics study to determine whether it qualifies as a toxic substance.
Victoria resident Carol-Lynne Michaels, who made headlines when she spent two years attempting to live a plastic-free life, said she was pleased to see some progress on a microplastics ban.
“We see plastic reduction initiatives a lot more often today than we did a few years ago,” Michaels said.
She wasn’t able to pull off an outright avoidance of plastics during her attempts in 2012 and 2014, but Michaels felt compelled to try after watching The Clean Bin Project, a documentary that laid bare the level of plastic consumption found in the bellies of birds and other animals in the North Pacific.
At her home, Michaels displays plastic straws, disposable spoons and a few plastic bags from her 2014 attempt that remind her just how difficult the wean away from plastic can be.
“It’s the single use disposable plastic that needs to stop,” she said. “You use a spoon or straw for five minutes and that will never go away. That’s the great thing for me in hearing the news about microplastics. We need to figure out as individuals and as a society how to deal with this.”
To start, Michaels is organizing a screening of the plastics documentary Bag It! in collaboration with the Victoria chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. The April 21 screening and panel discussion will take place at the Victoria Event Centre at 6 p.m. and will include local business owners committed to reducing their plastic output.
Bianca Bodley of Biophilia Design Collective will host the evening, and panel speakers will include Cindy Meiklejohn of Ingredients Cafe + Community Market, Jennifer McKimmie of Niagara Grocery and Andrew Woodford from Mountain Equipment Co-op.
“The goal is to get the conversation started about our consumer habits and ways to help businesses mentor one another,” Michaels said. “Whether it’s as simple as removing plastic grocery bags, it’s a conversation about how we can support businesses to reduce their plastic footprint.”