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Are Microbeads About to Become a Thing of the Past?

The House voted this week to ban microbeads. This is a demonstrably good thing.
(Photo: Neutrogena)

(Photo: Neutrogena)

The House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Monday to ban plastic microbeads from personal care products. The plastic beads, which measure in at less than five millimeters, are often used as synthetic replacements to natural exfoliants in face scrubs, or to add color or texture to cosmetics. But mounting evidence shows the particles are slipping through wastewater treatment plants—and into waterways and, in turn, the bellies of the aquatic food chain—at alarming rates. Just a single use of a face scrub can release as many as 94,000 microbeads at once. Traces of microplastics have also been reported in every major ocean.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act was introduced earlier this year by Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-New Jersey) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R–Michigan). The bill would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prohibit the sale and distribution of any rinse-off cosmetics—including face scrubs, soap, and even toothpaste—containing microbeads.

"Most people who buy personal care products that contain microbeads are unaware that these tiny bits of plastic seep into waterways, threatening the environment and ultimately our health," Pallone said in a press release on Monday. "It is our responsibility to implement a nationwide ban on plastic microbeads, and spur a transition to non-synthetic alternatives."

Individual states have passed similar measures in months past, including Colorado, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Illinois, and New Jersey. In October, Governor Jerry Brown approved a measure prohibiting the sale of microbead-laden products in California starting in 2020—one of the most stringent laws against microbeads in the country. (The Microbead-Free Waters Act would supplant any existing state or local microbead laws.)

Facing mounting pressure following such state-wide bans, companies like Unilever, L'Oreal, and the Body Shop have also announced in recent years that they'd be phasing out or outright discontinuing the use of microbeads in facial or body cleansers.

Here's what else we know about microbeads:

  • About eight billion microbeads a day, or some 2.9 trillion microbeads a year, end up in aquatic habitats across the country, according to some estimates. That's enough microbeads to wrap around the world more than seven times.
  • Even a piece of plastic floating in the ocean as tiny as a microbead can house more than 1,000 different microbes. The amount of bacteria, algae, and single-celled organisms growing on a single piece of plastic are diverse enough to form their own complex and delicate ecosystem—much like that of a coral reef—known as a "plastisphere." And because plastic can travel such great distances in the open ocean and takes so long to degrade, these microbes might even be considered invasive species, according to research.
  • Microbeads, pellets, and other plasticky litter comprise about 80 percent of the trash found along the shores of the Great Lakes. Microbeads are particularly prevalent in the surface waters of Lakes Superior, Huron, and Erie. Wastewater treatment plants aren't required to monitor for microplastics either. Approximately 65 percent of wastewater treatment plants in New York state, which shares borders with Lakes Ontario and Erie, do not treat water for microbead removal, for example. According to a Canadian study of plastic in the Great Lakes, microbeads have been found in six out of seven wastewater treatment plants in New York state. Further studies show that the amount of microplastic found in the Great Lakes alone contends with the amounts of microplastic found in enormous global garbage patches like the South Pacific Gyre.
  • Creatures at the bottom of the food chain, like microscopic zooplankton, are steadily mistaking microplastics for food, according to a 2015 study by the Vancouver Aquarium and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Plastic-filled zooplankton would in turn threaten the fish that feed on them, and so on, up through the rest of the aquatic food chain. There's also evidence that microplastics can leach toxins once consumed. A 2013 study of lugworms—a worm commonly found on coastlines—that were exposed to sand with traces of microplastics found that pollutants and chemicals were absorbed into the worms' gut tissues.
  • Microbeads are killing off coral reefs. Corals can't differentiate plastic from real food, and the tiny bits of plastic caught in their digestive systems hinders their ability to digest food, starving them in the process.

If approved by the Senate, the Microbead-Free Waters Act would begin phasing out microbeads in personal care products beginning July 1, 2017.