If your favorite face wash includes tiny microbeads, you better savor it. After playing catch-up with several states, the U.S. has finally passed a measure that would keep the microscopic plastic spheres from going down the drain and possibly into the stomachs of our seafood.
President Barack Obama yesterday signed into law the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 [PDF], which would phase out the use of microbeads in consumer products over the next several years, MLive reports.
The Act, which passed the U.S. House unanimously in early December signaling widespread support for the ban, prohibits the “manufacture and introduction into interstate commerce of rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally-added plastic microbeads.”
Under the bill, a ban on manufacturing products with the beads, the first step, would begin on July 1, 2017, followed by product-specific manufacturing and sales bans in 2018 and 2019.
The bill’s definition of a microbead — “any solid plastic particle” less than five millimeters in size intended for use as an exfoliant — also closes a potential loophole that environmental groups feared could keep the small spheres in use: simply using a different kind of plastic.
“As someone who grew up on Lake Michigan and represents a large chunk of Michigan coastline, I understand firsthand how important it is to maintain the beauty and integrity of our Great Lakes,” Illinois Representative Fred Upton, who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement in early December.
The small bits of plastic, often found in face washes, soaps and toothpaste, have become a hot topic for lawmakers and environmentalists in recent years, with many states taking action to end the use of microbeads.
A report issued by the New York Environmental Protection Bureau last year outlined just how unsafe the small plastic pieces can be.
According to the report, after microbeads are washed from our bathrooms, they easily travel through wastewater treatment plants and enter our waterways. The tiny beads then act as sponges for toxic chemical pollutants and become an attractive snack for marine wildlife. And because we humans often like to eat seafood, that means there’s a pretty good chance the spheres could end up in your stomach.
Despite the findings, legislation to phase out the use of microbeads state-wide has passed the New York Assembly twice in the last two years, but has stalled in the Senate both times.
Last year, Illinois became the first state to pass an ordinance that would gradually fade out the use of microbeads beginning in 2017 and ending in 2019.
The state bill even had the cooperation of product manufacturers. An official with the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois said at the time that the quick deal resulted from unique circumstances, and the availability of substitute ingredients, such as oatmeal and sea salt.
Earlier this year, the state of California voted to phase out the use of microscopic exfoliating beads in personal care products sold in the state.
Michigan also considered a ban on the use of the beads this year. MLive reports that legislators debated the bill, but failed to reach a consensus.
The issue hasn’t just been on the minds of activists, either. Several major manufacturers, such as Proctor & Gamble, and Unilever, have pledged to phase out use of plastic microbeads.
In February 2014, L’Oréal said it would begin phasing out the materials this year in their Biotherm products and continue with Body Shop products in 2015. All of the company’s products are expected to be microbead-free by 2017.
Colgate-Palmolive has already discontinued using microbeads in all its products, telling Consumerist in a statement in October: “Some groups have raised concerns regarding the potential contribution of microbeads to pollution of the world’s oceans. Recognizing that consumers have questions, as of year-end 2014 we are no longer using this ingredient.”