How Marketing Banned Microbeads

Hal Conick, Photos by Lloyd Degrane​/Alliance for the Great Lakes
Key Takeaways

​What? The Alliance for the Great Lakes used marketing to push for a microbead ban.

So what? The Alliance used use human stories to inform and appeal to supporters, and each message was a springboard for action.

Now what? Consider rooting your nonprofit campaign in research and messaging that elicits emotion in your supporters.​​​​​

​A Chicago-based nonprofit used media, marketing and social networking to push for a microbead ban. But with a small staff and big issues, how can the Alliance for the Great Lakes use the ban’s blueprint for future victories? 

“Don’t just clean; deep clean and invigorate your skin,” actress Hayden Panettiere exclaims in a 2007 Neutrogena ad, a light blue cream with tiny dark-blue dots splattering across the screen as she splashes water over her face. These dots are “icy blue microbeads,” the ad says, solid plastic particles that were used in soap, toothpaste and facial scrubs starting in the late 1990s. Nearly every large distributor of cosmetic goods—including L’Oreal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Neutrogena parent company Johnson & Johnson—laced consumer products with microbeads.

As consumers slathered their faces and teeth with microbead-filled creams and pastes, experts estimated 8 trillion of the microbeads—ranging in size from 10 micrometers to 1 millimeter in diameter—separated from the goop and traveled down the drain with the water each day, according to a 2015 opinion published in Environmental Science and Technology. Eight trillion microbeads is a “conservative” estimate, researchers from Oregon State University and University of California, Davis wrote, but it’s still enough microbeads to cover more than 300 tennis courts daily.

Circling down the drain of a consumer’s home, these trillions of microbeads are sucked into sewer systems before flowing into wastewater treatment plants. Wastewater plants are efficient at filtering out most debris, but anything smaller than 1.5 millimeters can float past the gates of most systems​, along the surface of the water, above the sludge and detritus and into nearby bodies of water—bays, rivers, oceans and, according to what Dr. Sherri Mason found in 2012, the Great Lakes. 

Mason, a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, was the first scientist to research how many microbeads had floated into the Great Lakes. In 2012 and 2013, she sailed the Great Lakes—Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan—bodies of water that contain 6 quadrillion gallons, or one-fifth, of the world’s surface fresh wate​r. Mason captured samples to measure plastic in the lakes. Plastic content ranged from 7,000 to 230,000 particles per sqaure kilometer, increasing as the chain of lakes extends to the Atlantic Ocean. Millions of tiny beads and other pieces of plastic successfully floated from the bottle to the drain to the Great Lakes. According to her research, 75% of the plastic found was smaller than 1 millimeter in diameter—“like a period at the end of a sentence,” Mason said during a 2016 TED Talk. 

“We are the problem,” she says. “But that also means that we are the solution.”


 Beads of destruction | Sherri Mason | TEDxThunderBay


​​In 2013, as Mason’s microbead research became public, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based nonprofit with the mission of protecting the Great Lakes, hired Jennifer Caddick. Caddick, whose career has been dedicated to water advocacy nonprofits, was hired by the Alliance to establish a marketing and communications team to break down internal silos and improve communication to supporters. Caddick wanted to use human stories to inform and appeal to Alliance supporters, but she also wanted each message to be a springboard for action, whether it be donating, volunteering or sharing news on social networks. The Alliance’s key issues would stay the same—Lake Erie’s toxic algae bloom, clean drinking water and invasive species, such as Asian carp—but Caddick wanted to focus the Alliance’s marketing to efficiently galvanize its base. She revamped the Alliance’s website, adopted new communications tools and ensured campaigns were measurable. 

The Alliance seemed a perfect fit for Caddick, a lifelong lover of the Great Lakes. Caddick grew up in upstate New York, near the Saint Lawrence River, an inlet that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. One of Caddick’s fondest childhood memories is walking with her grandfather atop peat and plants to the edge of the river. She was 10 years old and the day was foggy. She fidgeted, trying to locate the foghorns blowing in the distance. As the fog peeled away, she watched the water with wonder, peppering her grandfather with candid curiosities. What does a foghorn mean? Where are the ships going? The thinning fog uncovered rippling water and roaming ships as he patiently explained the world revealing itself in front of them.  

“I started to get a sense of the vastness of the river,” Caddick says. “He helped me understand our place in a bigger system.”

Decades later, in 2013, Caddick had just started her job at the Alliance when her sense of place turned into a sense of disbelief. She saw Mason’s microbead research and wondered:  Why are so many companies using plastic microbeads? Other companies, such as Burt’s Bees and Palmer’s, use apricot and cocoa shells as natural alternatives for exfoliation products—items that biodegrade quickly, unlike plastic, which may take 1,000 years. Caddick and the Alliance went on the offensive, using marketing, traditional media outlets and social media to lobby for a nationwide ban of microbeads in consumer products. “This is a commonsense problem that we can prevent,” Caddick says.

As the Alliance’s policy team lobbied Illinois and other state governments for a consumer microbead ban, Caddick communicated directly with the Alliance’s supporters. Each message conveyed the seriousness of the situation and listed steps they could take toward a microbead ban. “The first step [is] to keep an eye out for products that you’re purchasing,” Caddick says. “The second [is] encouraging our supporters to write their elected officials. We organized letter-writing campaigns, action alerts and saw a huge outcry from our supporters.”​​

Social media became an explosive medium for the Alliance, particularly Facebook. The nonprofit’s most successful post—shared 855 times—was an infographic showing how microbeads are sucked into the Great Lakes and eaten by wildlife. Caddick and her team realized the great potential of social media to hold the rapt interest of supporters. Microbeads have what Caddick calls an “ick factor;” for example, many dentists spoke out about finding microbeads in patients’ gums and teeth

Microbeads were already a visceral issue for supporters, but Caddick and her team wanted to show what the beads looked like outside globs of gel and cream. “We did an experiment in the office,” Caddick says with a smile. Her team ran a microbead-laden facial scrub through a coffee filter in the Alliance’s kitchen. After the beads dried, Caddick dipped her finger into the beads—some blue, some clear, some white, all varying sizes—and took a picture. Newspapers and users across social media picked up the photo, Caddick says. Mason’s research became well-known in public conversation as large news organizations, such as NPR and The New York Times, wrote about microbeads in the Great Lakes. In 2014, the campaign’s virality paid off: Companies began setting timetables to end the sales and production of consumer products with microbeads. Then, the state of Illinois became the first in a wave of state governments to ban microbead-laden cosmetic products. “Lake Michigan and the many rivers and lakes across our state are among our most important natural resources,” then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said in a statement. “We must do everything necessary to safeguard them.” In 2015 New York, Ohio and California had their own microbead-banning legislation. 

Caddick and the Alliance celebrated each victory with a message to supporters, compounding the earned media campaign with its own awareness and letter-writing campaigns to keep supporters active. “Microbead progress in Wisconsin!” a 2015 Alliance for the Great Lakes Facebook post says, linking to a form letter that supporters could send to their legislators in support of a microbead ban.

Anxious Great Lakes supporters didn’t have to wait long for a nationwide microbead ban. H.R. 1321, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, was signed into federal law in December of that year. The bill banned the manufacture of consumer products containing microbeads in July 2017 and will ban sales of those products in July 2018.  

Caddick scored her first big victory as the Alliance’s marketing leader, taking advantage of what she called “a perfect storm.” The virality, research and marketing came together to galvanize the anger of Great Lakes supporters into political action rather than stopping its momentum at the “like” button. 

“We can’t do everything, but when we discover an issue that we are concerned about, we want to educate our supporters,” Caddick says. “We always want to give people an action.”

Now that it has scored a big victory against microbeads, the Alliance’s next action must be equally evocative.

Sometimes, Caddick says, it’s hard to keep supporters aware of and fighting for issues that will take decades to solve. Most Great Lakes issues, like plastic pollution, are difficult to see, hidden by 6 quadrillion gallons of water. 

In a Loyola University lab in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, Timothy Hoellein, an assistant professor and aquatic ecologist, works to uncover the hidden plastic. In Hoellein’s lab, foil-covered jars, glasses and petri dishes line the shelves, most filled with water and sediment from across the U.S., many stacked perilously above computers and microscopes. Other jars contain fish set to be dissected, pulverized and examined for plastic in their guts. Hoellein picks up a beaker of water and turns it in his hands, sediment slushing across the bottom; there are likely plastic fibers—even smaller than microbeads—in the sediment, he says. These fibers compose most of the plastic that Hoellein and his students find in bodies of water. Rachel McNeish, a post-doctoral research fellow in the biology department at Loyola, leans over a microscope, looking at fibers they’ve found in samples of fish and water. She can tell the first sample isn’t plastic because it’s frayed; it looks like a hair with a split end. “See how the end comes apart?” says McNeish, smiling as she motions for others to look in the microscope. The next two samples she examines look to be synthetic, she says; one curves like an S, the other like a C, neither are frayed. Both look like a loose piece of plastic curling under the heat of a flame.

Plastic fiber comes from garments made with artificial material—such as polyester or acrylic. The fibers come off in the wash, on the ground or even in the air, floating away and landing in the water before being gulped down by wildlife. Hoellein says they’ve found plastic pieces, mostly fibers, in approximately 96% of fish studied in his Loyola lab. When asked if these fibers end up in the fish humans eat, Hoellein says he isn’t sure, as no U.S. studies have been conducted yet. However, he says European researchers have found plastic pieces of varying sizes inside of fish at seafood markets. 

Although banning plastic microbeads in consumer goods was an easy decision for most—especially for Great Lakes supporters who knew there were biodegradable alternatives—Hoellein says that plastic is ubiquitous and the pollution it creates is not easily solvable by a ban. Plastic is in our cars, our clothes, our smartphones and even the construction of our buildings. In 1950, the world produced almost no plastic, per PlasticsEurope; by 2014, there were nearly 300 million tons of plastic produced each year—most pieces completely disposable and entirely unable to biodegrade. 

“We’re all participants in the pipeline of plastic products in ways that affect everything that we do,” Hoellein says. “It’s more about trying to understand our relationship with the material and where it enters our bodies, our behavior and asking what the responsible use of it is.” 

Back in the Alliance’s office, Caddick sits in a room overlooking Chicago’s Millennium Park, just west of Lake Michigan. It’s bitter cold—5 degrees—and Lake Michigan, sitting just beyond the park, has crystalized. Somewhere under the ice, plastic pollution churns and bubbles with the fish and water. Plastic pollution is a big issue, bigger than the 95,160 square miles of the Great Lakes, and supporters always want to know how they can help. However, the Alliance’s supporters are human and have finite attention spans. Caddick knows that bombarding them with unfocused e-mails and social media posts is more likely to overwhelm than galvanize. Microbeads were an emotional issue and had a spark with supporters, but other issues, such as the unseen plastic fibers that come off our clothes, are more esoteric.

That’s the frustrating part about understanding and protecting the Great Lakes system as part of a small nonprofit, Caddick says. The staff of 25 at the Alliance for the Great Lakes can’t protect everything, nor can it spur its 13,000 Facebook fans, its list of e-mail newsletter recipients or its 150 ambassadors into action on each issue. There isn’t enough attention, let alone people. Therein lies the importance of a focused, well-planned marketing campaign. If a campaign isn’t grounded in research and doesn’t spark the interest of supporters, Caddick doesn’t believe it will be effective. 

When asked what issue the Alliance will attack next, drinking water is Caddick’s immediate answer, but plastic is still an issue. Then there’s the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie, which can now be seen from outer space, and Asian carp, an invasive species of fish swimming ever-closer to the Great Lakes. As Caddick and the Alliance staff members debate the next big push, the crux of the Alliance’s marketing—fundraising, volunteering, storytelling and disseminated information—continues, undaunted. 

The Alliance’s Adopt-a-Beach program sends 15,000 volunteers​ from across the country to remove litter from beaches, a program with data Hoellein has studied. Nearly 87% of the litter found by volunteers is plastic—namely cups, straws and food wrappers.

Caddick doesn’t have the next big push ready and doesn’t believe the process can be rushed. To attack drinking water, the Alliance needs help from researchers and scientists like Mason and Hoellein, members of affected communities and Alliance supporters across the U.S. The Alliance needs the spark that made the microbead campaign successful, but it also needs support, planning and expertise from outside its walls.  

“The marketing comes second,” Caddick says. “Everything is grounded in our strategic goals and the needs for the lakes and the people who rely on the lakes. Then we ask how we can use our communication tools to help our policy, planning, volunteer and education staff meet their goals. These stories have to work to further those campaigns.”

Just as Caddick thinks of her time with her grandfather by the Saint Lawrence River, the best stories make people think of their own fond memories by the water and wonder: Am I leaving a better world for my kids? “These issues impact real lives every day,” Caddick says. “It’s essential to find those stories, tell them and use social media to get those stories out there.”

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Hal Conick, Photos by Lloyd Degrane​/Alliance for the Great Lakes
Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.