House votes to ban microbeads in the U.S.

microbeads in facial scrub
© 5 Gyres Institute

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of banning the use of synthetic micro-plastics in personal care products. The bill was introduced by New Jersey representative Frank Pallone last summer, and has since gained bipartisan support. A companion bill has also been brought to the Senate by Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters of Michigan.

Plastic microbeads are a source of plastic pollution in waterways. Manufacturers add tiny plastic beads to soaps, body washes, face washes and toothpaste, sometimes to increase exfoliation or for aesthetic reasons. But the tiny size of these beads makes them too small to be properly filtered out by municipal water treatment facilities, and the plastic inevitably ends up in rivers, lakes and the oceans.

Senators Stabenow and Peters, along with Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, all expressed concern over this source of plastic pollution ending up in the Great Lakes. Illinois was the first state to pass a microbead ban in the summer of 2014, with a similar concern.

The federal ban will supersede the state bans, and allow for a faster phase-out, according to Pallone. If the House bill is made into law, the phase-out will begin in 2017 and microbeads will be completely banned by 2018.

Some state-level microbead bans permit “biodegradable” plastics. According to the environmental non-profit 5 Gyres, this gives manufacturers too much leeway to create bioplastics that might still harm the environment. They say that there is no biodegradable plastic that has been shown to be safe for the environment yet.

However, the national ban wouldn't have that problem, and if made into law would ban all synthetic plastics. 5 Gyres supports the federal ban and that it doesn't contain the bioplastic loophole.

Only the state of California has passed a microbead ban that also prohibits bioplastics. Natural alternatives to microbeads are used by some personal care manufacturers, such as sugar, salt and ground apricot pits.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated that the House bill would permit bioplastics.

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