The days are numbered for those tiny plastic beads in soaps, body washes, toothpastes, and other household products. At the end of December, President Obama signed into law the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which bans the plastic microspheres widely used as exfoliating agents starting in July 2017. The bill is great news for waterways and oceans, as well as for human health. Studies have shown that the beads are washed down household drains, pass through sewage treatment plants, and make their ways into lakes, rivers, and oceans in enormous quantities (an estimated 11 billion microbeads are released into American waterways each day). There, they absorb toxins such as pesticides and move into the food web after being consumed by fish and other marine organisms. The result is an accumulation of toxins in wildlife and fish populations, and a danger to humans when affected seafood is eaten.
The bill sailed through the House and the Senate last month with an ease that seemed unusual for environmental legislation, in part because there was little opposition from the cosmetics companies responsible for most microbeads production. The industry had been under fire from environmental activists for years over the hazards of microbeads, and most major companies were already on board to begin phasing them out. Overbrook grantee The Story of Stuff Project was one of a handful of organizations that were instrumental to placing pressure on the cosmetics industry and pushing this bill through Congress.
Following the US bill and a similar law in the Netherlands, a rapidly growing online petition was launched to enact a microbeads ban in the UK. The hope is that more countries will follow these leads and make microbeads and their environmental effects a thing of the past.