The tiny, exfoliating beads found in face washes, body scrubs and other beauty products may be wreaking havoc on marine life, leading some U.S. states, as well as Australia, to consider banning them.
The plastic microbeads are too small to be caught by water filtration systems after they are flushed down the sink and end up accumulating in rivers, lakes and oceans. A study conducted by the environmental group 5 Gyres found microplastic particles in the Great Lakes at an average of 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometer.
The plastic particles are also inadvertently swallowed up by fish and other organisms, where they remain indefinitely: one study found that plastics remained in mussels for 48 days, while another study found that crabs ingest the plastic particles through their gills and also by eating smaller marine animals that have unwittingly eaten them.
This past summer, Illinois became the first state to pass a ban on microbeads. Several other states are considering similar measures. In March, Ohio Senator Mike Skindell introduced a bill to ban products with microbeads, although that bill has not yet gone anywhere. Most recently, a bill passed unanimously in the New Jersey Assembly and Senate. However, some environmental groups are now calling on Governor Chris Christie to conditionally veto the bill, saying that the bill in its current form has a loophole enabling companies to replace microbeads with other types of plastic.
At the federal level, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Representative Frank Pallone have introduced legislation called the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2014 that would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ban microbeads by 2018.
Earlier this year, California Assemblyman Richard Bloom’s bill to ban products with microbeads by 2016 fell one vote short of passing the state Legislature, but the San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that environmental groups are pushing for another bill in 2015.
In Australia, the New South Wales Environment Minister Rob Stokes recently called for a national ban on products containing microbeads and said that the government would convene an industry working group to devise a plan for getting rid the microplastics by 2016.
Although industry lobbied against California’s proposed ban, some companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Colgate, Unilever and L’Oreal, are nonetheless on board with the movement and have voluntarily said they would replace microbeads in their products.