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Microbead Scrub

Image: Creative Commons

On Monday, the US House of Representatives voted for a bill that would phase out production and sale of the tiny bits of plastic in personal care products known as microbeads beginning in 2017.

The Microbead-Free Water Act was co-sponsored by Representatives Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, and Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey.

“These microbeads are tiny plastic, but make for big-time pollution,” Upton said in a press release.

Plastic microbeads are often included in personal care products like facial soaps and toothpast as exfoliants, but research has found that the microbeads end up in lakes, rivers and oceans because they are small enough to pass through filtration systems at wastewater plants. The plastics do not degrade and are consumed by fish and other wildlife.

A study conducted by the 5 Gyres Institute found microplastics in the Great Lakes at an average of 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometer. The plastics have also turned up in Canada’s St. Lawrence River and even in Arctic sea ice.

In a statement, Molly Flanagan of the Alliance for the Great Lakes said she applauded the decision. “Microbeads are a known Great Lakes pollutant for which there are known natural alternatives,” she said. “Small enough to slip through most sewage treatment processes, microbeads make their way into the Great Lakes and other waters where they can absorb chemical contaminants and pass them along to fish and wildlife that mistake them for food. Action at the federal level sends a strong message that the true solution to the problem of plastic pollution in U.S. waters must focus on the sources,” she added.

The bill will now go to the Senate. If it passes there, it would ban the use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic products and drugs, with the microbead manufacturing ban to begin July 1, 2017, followed by a ban on manufacturing over-the-counter drugs and sales of cosmetics with microbeads on July 1, 2018, and a ban on sales of over-the-counter drugs containing microbeads on July 1, 2019.

Some US states are also looking to ban microplastics. Illinois became the first state to pass a ban on microbeads last year and a number of other states are also considering bans. A California bill fell one vote short of passing the state Senate.

In Australia, the New South Wales Environment Minister Rob Stokes said the government would devise a plan to get rid of microbeads by 2016. Researchers there found 60 to 100 particles of microplastic debris in 100 milliliters of sediment in a harbor in Sydney. Cosmetic companies there have also pledged to rid their products of microbeads.

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