Tulane grad fights against microbeads for cleaner waters

Alison Ruttenberg, Contributing Reporter

The face of exfoliation in America will change thanks to federal legislation passed with the help of Tulane graduate Lisa Kaas Boyle.

Microbeads, the small plastic beads often used in face washes and toothpastes, are known to have a negative impact on marine life. On Dec. 28, 2015 President Barack Obama signed the Microbead Free Waters Act, removing rinse-off cosmetics containing microbeads from all store shelves starting in 2017. Kaas Boyle, a 1990 Tulane environmental law grad, is credited for opening the door to federal anti-microbead legislation as she helped establish a statewide ban in California only a few months prior.

According to Rachel Keylon, policy specialist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program, the microbead ban is only one step in a long road to cleaner water bodies.

“Removing unnecessary plastic microbeads in cosmetics will not take care of the microplastics problem in the ocean and Great Lakes entirely,” Keylon said. “But it will help eliminate one known source.”

The tiny microplastic abrasives contained in many rinse-off skin care products are designed to wash down the drain. When they subsequently enter aquatic environments like the Great Lakes, they can be detrimental to the habitat and the species it contains.

Keylon notes that these microbeads absorb toxic chemicals and “persist for decades in aquatic and marine habitats, breaking down into ever-smaller pieces.”

The persistence of toxic microbeads affects every level of a marine ecosystem.

“These toxic plastics are regularly consumed by marine life,” Keylon said. “Initial research has found that ingested plastics may then transfer … toxic chemicals to marine life, subsequently moving up the food chain.”

For those still bitter about the ban despite the environmental benefits, Mark Davis, environmental law professor and director of the Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy at Tulane, puts the implications of the legislation into perspective. He explains that the tradeoff of toxic marine pollutants for an exfoliating face wash is no contest.

“It’s really not much of a balance,” Davis said. “You could say, ‘society is getting such beautiful, creamy skin that we have to live with these risks.’ I don’t think too many people are going there.”

Kaas Boyle has used her Tulane education to create an exceptional impact at both the national and international level. Since graduating from Tulane, she has worked to reform policy that currently harms the environment. Some of her most prominent contributions include planning two environmental panels at the United Nations and co-founding the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance that works to stop plastic pollution and its toxic impact.

Davis works closely with students committed to environmental reform, and notes that creating significant change requires a dedication to one’s community that the environmental law program works to cultivate.

“New Orleans is a place that is being studied globally for how it’s dealing with issues of resilience, issues of community change, whether we do it well or not so well and others are taking note,” Davis said. “And that’s not necessarily true every place else you go. You really have a chance here to make your classroom as big as you want to make it.”

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