• What is the Microbead Free Waters Act?


What is the Microbead Free Waters Act?

Jan 13 2016

President Barack Obama has signed into law a new act which will prohibit the use of microbeads – tiny pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm in diameter – in the production of cosmetics such as soaps, toothpastes and other personal care products. The law is an effort to phase out the harmful contamination of our waterways by these small plastic particles.

It will come into effect on July 1st 2017, banning production using microbeads from that date in the US. However, the sale of products containing microbeads produced prior to the cut-off will be tolerated until July 1st, 2019.

Small Plastic, Big Problem

These tiny beads of plastic are used in a variety of healthcare products, such as moisturisers, exfoliating scrubs, cosmetics and toothpastes, and often still contain the harmful beads after being rinsed down the drain. Their diminutive size means that they evade detection in the wastewater treatment process, the importance of which should not be underestimated. After sifting out solids, organic matter, nutrients and other pollutants from wastewater, it is returned to streams and lakes – but microbeads are found to be able to bypass this process.

Indeed, a report from September last year highlighted the fact that US waterways could be being polluted with as much as eight trillion microbeads on a daily basis! This is because US plants are capable of processing as much as 160 trillion litres of water every single day, and even if only they were all operating at half capacity, as many as seven beads have been found in every litre, thus making up the gobsmacking eight trillion figure.

The beads themselves are such a big problem for two main reasons: firstly, they are incredibly resilient, lasting in the atmosphere for longer than they should due to their synthetic polymer makeup. Secondly, and more pertinently, they attract toxins such as pesticides, motor oil and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which can become attached to the beads and then be ingested by fish or other marine life which mistake them for fish eggs. Over time, these harmful toxins build up in their bodies and can eventually wind up on our dinner plate – or the belly of other animals – thereby contaminating the whole food chain.

A Progressive Restriction

The information about microbeads and their harmful potential came to light in 2013, when a 5 Gyres environmental study found that the materials were polluting the Great Lakes. Since then a whole host of household names have pledged to phase out the use of microbeads, including Adidas, L’Oreal, The Body Shop and Colgate.

Though nine states had already passed their own laws on the substance, the federal law makes it more far-reaching and more stringent. It was signed off by the House of Representatives on December 10th, agreed upon by the Senate on December 18th and signed off by President Obama at the tail end of the year. As such, it represents a rare instance of the US political system working in fluid harmony.

Hopefully, the phasing out of this harmful substance will reduce the need to clean up lakes and reservoirs by eliminating the problem before it becomes one.

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