The stage is set for a ban on soaps, toothpastes, and body washes that contain tiny plastic particles called microbeads.
The House recently passed a bill that phases out the environmentally-harmful beads beginning July 1, 2017, and now heads to the Senate for approval.
The problem with microbeads is simple: They don’t dissolve, instead entering waterstreams by the billions.
California’s State Assembly approved a measure to ban the beads, which are touted by big companies as skin exfoliators, this summer.
In New York State alone, 19 tons of of microbeads are washed down the drain each year, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, where they collect harmful pollutants like DDT. In waterways, fish and other wildlife mistake the teensy scraps of plastic for food. From there, the beads are integrated into the food chain.
“Microbeads are highly damaging to the natural environment and the wildlife that live there. Because natural alternatives already exist, a ban on their use in personal care products makes perfect sense,” the Wildlife Conservation Society states in a press release.
A 2013 study found as many as 1.7 million of the tiny plastic particles per square kilometer in Michigan’s Lake Erie, one of the bodies of water in the Great Lakes Region where many of our debris end up.
Because they’re so small, microbeads don’t get filtered out by wastewater treatment plants. Instead, they get discharged directly into rivers, lakes, and the ocean.
There, fish, turtles, and other aquatic wildlife feed on the tiny bits of plastic, which to them are often indistinguishable from food. But rather than simply getting eaten and discharged by the animals, the microbeads become lodged in the animals’ stomachs or intestines. When this happens, the animals often stop eating and die of starvation or suffer other health problems.
“We have the evidence that the micro plastics do cause harm,” Marcus Eriksen, the executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, a research group who led the 2013 study, told Scientific American. “I am hoping we can translate that research into some positive action.”
Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble have all made pledges to phase out the most common kind of microbead from products.
The International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics has compiled a helpful list of the products that likely contain microbeads.
Here are the products:
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