President Obama signed a bill into law on December 28 that will ban the selling and distributing of environmentally-damaging microbeads in personal care products by July of 2017.
Microbeads are tiny plastic balls that are less than five millimeters in size. They are widely popular in personal skin care products such as skincare products, soaps, cosmetics, and toothpaste. Although they're popular for exfoliating and deep cleansing, these particles settle in the rivers, lakes, and oceans, and pass through water filter systems.
Scientists have already estimated that there are 300,000 microbeads in a bottle of face wash, usually containing the ingredient polyethylene or HDPE (high-density polyethylene), or PEHD, a combination of both.
Environmental researchers found that microbeads do not melt or wash away but just settle in rivers, lakes, and oceans after being washed down the drain. These plastic microbeads have an impact on animals and aquatic life. Katie Zimmerman of the Coastal Conservation League explained to ABC 4 News why microbeads are so hazardous to the environment.
"It's a dangerous toxin that's not healthy for anyone to have in their bodies. They can look at the list of ingredients and if it lists polyethylene or polypropylene, then it's plastic. It's also going right down the sink or tub into our water system. It's so tiny that most systems can't filter them out. Those go into our waterways and ultimately the ocean. If you're a fish eater here, you are probably eating those microbeads."
She told the outlet that the bill went through Congress quickly with bipartisan support and the support of the companies who make these products.
"Major manufacturers like Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson all supported this law as well. They had already started voluntarily phasing out microbeads."
Companies that manufacture microbeads in their products must stop making them by mid-2017, and retailers must stop selling them by mid-2018, according to the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
U.S. grocery chain Wegmans has become one of the first major retailers that will remove all products containing microbeads from its store shelves. The retailer has announced that all of its products will be removed from its stores by mid-February 2016, two years ahead of the federal ban. Mary Ellen Burris, Wegmans senior vice president of consumer affairs, said in a recent press statement that the time is now.
"Well feel this is the right thing to do for the communities we serve. It falls under our sustainability mission to make responsible decisions that positively impact people, business and the environment."
And it's not just the U.S. that's ridding the world of microbeads. Grocery giants Coles and Woolworths are working hard to remove any products that contain these solid plastic particles in Australia. Environmental activist Jon Dee is leading a campaign to ban the production and distribution of microbeads in Australia.
"Most people you talk to have no idea that the personal care products they are using contain plastic microbeads. People think they contain exfoliants like apricot kernels and walnut shells and other natural ingredients but the reality is that these products contain microbeads that are so small that they get through the waste water treatment plants and end up in our waterways and harbors."
In addition, global manufacturers like Unilever and the Body Shop have been working to find alternative and natural materials to use in their products. And major skincare and cosmetic products have already begun to phase out microbeads, thanks to campaigns like Ban the Bead!
But some say that this sudden banning on microbeads won't help the millions of plastic particles already found in our waterways or the amount of plastic trash that's already been dumped into our oceans, according to Bloomberg View editorial writer James Greiff. According to him, it seems like this new law is too little, too late, as there's already millions of pounds of trash that's washed up on every beach in this country.
You won't have to give up your exfoliating scrubs and other personal care products since manufacturers are working on finding alternative ingredients. But to keep the plastic particles out of the water, it's a tiny step to an already huge problem.