This week Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation that makes Illinois the first state in the nation to ban synthetic plastic microbeads found in personal care products over concerns about how they’re harming the environment.
Microbeads are found in a range of personal care products, including exfoliating scrubs, soap and some toothpaste, and although they’re miniscule in size, they’ve been found to cause big problems after being washed down the drain and making their way to waterways, oceans and the Great Lakes.
“Banning microbeads will help ensure clean waters across Illinois and set an example for our nation to follow,” Governor Quinn said in a statement. “Lake Michigan and the many rivers and lakes across our state are among our most important natural resources. We must do everything necessary to safeguard them.”
In 2012, researchers with the 5 Gyres Institute and the State University of New York studying their impact in the Great Lakes, which contain more than 20 percent of the earth’s fresh water, found a disturbing amount of microbeads in water samples collected. In Lake Ontatio, levels are highest, with counts of up to 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer.
After realizing what they were dealing with, they dumped one tube of facial cleanser containing microbeads through a filter and counted an astounding 330,000 microbeads in just one tube.
An even more worrisome problem is that these plastics can absorb pollutants in the environment, including pesticides, motor oil, PCBs and other industrial chemicals and turn into a toxic meal for fish and other animals who mistake them for food, and then into a larger threat as they make their way through the food chain to us.
Worse still is there’s no known way to get these tiny beads out of the water. Because they’re so small, they can pass right through water treatment systems. While organizations like 5 Gyres are fighting to get companies to stop using them altogether, some have voluntarily agreed to do their part. The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and L’Oréal have announced plans to phase them out by 2015, while Procter & Gamble said it would catch up by 2017.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Ohio, California and New York are considering similar legislation, while Minnesota is looking into the issue. It looked like New York was going to be first to pass a bill with lawmakers moving forward with it in May, but Illinois won the race.
Under the new law in Illinois, production of products containing microbeads will end by 2018 and sales will end by 2019. Until the ban is in full swing, and other states catch up, we can help protect our waterways from plastic pollution by avoiding products that say they contain microbeads right on the label, or that have “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” listed as ingredients. Or, you can down the Beat the Microbead app to scan product barcodes and see whether there’s plastic in them.
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