US lawmakers are to decide whether to ban personal care products containing microbeads – minuscule pieces of plastic considered harmful to the environment – after proposed legislation was approved by a bipartisan committee.
Microbeads, typically under 5mm in size, are used as abrasive exfoliants in products such as toothpastes and facial cleaners. They often evade water filtration systems and flow into rivers, lakes and streams, where they can be mistaken for food by fish. Pollutants can bind to the plastic, causing toxic material to infect fish and, potentially, the humans that consume them.
The US House energy and commerce committee has unanimously approved the Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015, which was introduced by Frank Pallone, a Democrat, and Fred Upton, a Republican who acts as committee chairman.
The bill would start the phaseout of microbeads from products in the US from 1 July 2017. The federal legislation, if passed, will follow action taken by several states. Last month, California finalised a bill that phases out microbeads from 2020. This follows action taken by Illinois last year, which became the first state to ban the production, manufacture or sale of personal care products containing microbeads.
“Most people buying these everyday products are unaware of the damaging effects they are having on the environment,” said Pallone. “However, they are being washed down the drain and reaching our waterways, so we must make sure that these soaps and toothpastes don’t contain synthetic plastic that will ultimately contaminate our environment.”
Upton added that microbeads are “big time pollution” and that he was concerned about their impact upon the Great Lakes, which contain 20% of the world’s freshwater. Research conducted in 2013 by the State University of New York found that the lakes were riddled with microbeads, with Lake Ontario containing an estimated 1.1m plastic particles per square kilometer.
Separate research by Oregon State University found that a stunning 8tn microbeads a day are being emitted into bodies of water in the US. This plastic adds to the vast quantity of plastic floating throughout the world’s oceans, with a recent study finding that up to 90% of the planet’s seabirds have pieces of plastic in their guts.
The plastic comes from a variety of sources, including drinks bottles and discarded plastic bags, and stubbornly remains in the environment unless physically removed.
Much of this plastic waste accumulates in five large ocean gyres across the world. These gyres, which are circular currents that consolidate plastic in a single area, include the well-known ‘great Pacific garbage patch’, which covers an area roughly equivalent to Texas.
An audacious crowd-funded attempt to tackle this huge garbage patch is under way, with cleanup trials recently taking place off the coast of the Netherlands.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 18 Nov 2015.
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