Five Things to Know About Congress’ Vote to Ban Microbeads

Included as exfoliators in many common soaps and cosmetics, microbeads now pollute waterways worldwide

Microplastic poses a growing concern in oceans and other aquatic habitats. 5Gyres, via Oregon State University/Flickr

After years of mounting evidence that microplastics—the tiny exfoliating plastic bits used in many soaps and cosmetics—are environmentally hazardous, the rules may soon change.

Tuesday, the United States House of Representatives approved a bill called the "Microbead Free Waters Act." If it is passed by the Senate, the bill will ban companies in the U.S. from making and selling personal care products that contain these tiny pieces of plastic.

Wondering what the big deal is? Here are five things to know about the microbead ban and what it means for the environment:

What are microbeads?

Microbeads are actually pieces of plastic smaller than a pinhead and often appear as colorful little balls suspended in healthcare products like soap. Over the last several years, everything from face wash to toothpaste began incorporating microbeads, touting their exfoliating effects.

Why does this matter?

A mountain of research has shown that microbeads are a major source of water pollution worldwide. The beads can be easily mistaken as food by fish, coral and other marine life, which gobble up the brightly-colored plastics, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). From there, they enter the food chain, working their way up to larger creatures.

Even worse, the tiny plastic particles can absorb and concentrate harmful pollutants like pesticides and polycyclic hydrocarbons, which are created by burning fuels, Julie Beck reported for The Atlantic.

How big of an issue is this?

Because microbeads are so small, they often escape sewers' water filters, flushing out into open waters. In 2013, scientists studying microplastics in Lake Ontario found that the lake alone had about 1.1 million miniscule plastic particles per square kilometer, Oliver Milman reports for The Guardian.

The individual beads may be small, but they add up quickly: Every year, 19 tons of microplastics enter New York State’s waterways alone, Rachel Abrams reports for The New York Times

What does this law mean for my soap?

The bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Fred Upton and Democrat Frank Pallone, is the first federal legislation to target microbeads. If approved by the Senate, the Microbead Free Waters Act will force cosmetic and soap companies to phase out the production of synthetic microbeads by July 1, 2017. Several states including California, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut and Wisconsin passed laws this year that required companies to phase out microbeads starting January 1, 2018 with a total ban on microbead-containing products by 2020, Rich McCormick reports for The Verge.

Does this spell the end of microbeads?

While a federal ban on cosmetic microbeads in the United States would eliminate one source of plastic pollution, it’s not a total fix. According to the NOAA, larger pieces of plastic can splinter over time into increasingly tiny pieces. Also, banning microbead production won’t remove all the microplastics already contaminating waters from the Great Barrier Reef to the Arctic Ocean.

The Microbead Free Waters Act is a start. In the meantime, cautious customers should avoid products advertising microbeads and listing the plastics polyethylene and polypropylene as ingredients, NOAA says.

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