Illinois passes first microbead ban in the world

microbeads in facial scrub
© 5 Gyres Institute

Finally one state is putting a stop to the "exfoliocean!" Hopefully others will follow its lead, forcing companies to adopt eco-friendly alternatives.

Last week Illinois became the first jurisdiction in the world to ban plastic microbeads from personal care products. Microbeads give facial and body scrubs a grainy texture for exfoliation, but they are an ecological nightmare. Because they range in size from 0.0004 to 1.24 millimeters, they are too small to be filtered out by water treatment plants. They get flushed into waterways, ending up in lakes where they float, absorb toxins, and get eaten by marine animals because they resemble fish eggs. It takes a freshwater mussel 47 days to flush out ingested microbeads.

During the summers of 2012 and 2013, chemist Sherri Mason led a team of researchers from the U.S.-based 5 Gyres Institute to measure the quantity of microplastics in the waters of the Great Lakes. They found a horrifying 1,500 to 1.1 million particles per square mile, with the highest concentration in Lake Ontario. After the study, the team drafted model legislation for states to use in order to ban microplastics.

Illinois’s ban is important, but one more statewide ban is desperately needed, since that would create a “distribution nightmare” for companies and force them to come up with alternatives. The CBC quoted 5 Gyres associate director Stiv Wilson: “Effectively by winning two states, you win the entire North American region.” New York, Ohio, and California all have anti-microbead legislation in the works.

Some companies have pledged to eliminate microbeads, but deadlines vary. Colgate-Palmolive promised 2014, Unilever is aiming for 2015, and Proctor & Gamble said 2017. L’Oréal and Johnson & Johnson have not yet given any dates. The Great Lakes and St Lawrence Cities Initiative, which is a coalition of 114 U.S. and Canadian city mayors, is calling on these companies to figure out how they can now remove microbeads from the Great Lakes – “a task currently believed to be impossible.”

Using plastic to exfoliate is an extraordinarily dumb design, although many people might be surprised to learn that it’s actually plastic in their facial scrub – and a lot of it, too. The Institute for Environmental Studies found that “a 200 ml bottle contained as much as 21 grams of microplastics, or roughly a tenth of its weight.”

Consumers don’t have to wait around for these bans. Just boycott any store-bought exfoliants and scrubs that might contain microbeads. You can easily substitute with edible ingredients that work even better than rubbing plastic into your skin. Oatmeal, ground almonds, sugar, and salt are excellent natural exfoliants.

Congratulations to Illinois for taking this stance, and let’s hope that it’s the beginning of the end for all microplastics.

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