Earlier this month the House passed the bill, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. On Friday, December 22nd before congress left town, the Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent. The new law bans tiny beads of plastic known as microbeads that have been added as abrasives to beauty and health products like exfoliating facial scrubs and toothpaste. Under the law, companies will have to stop using beads in their products by July 2017.
In 2009 an Australian study found the majority of facial cleansers, many tooth pastes, hand creams, body wash contained exfoliating beads made of polyethylene. These bits of polyethylene plastic ranging in size from roughly 5μm to 1mm do not biodegrade out in nature. Microbeads are used in hundreds of products including cosmetics, sunscreen, body wash, toothpaste, skincare, and industrial and household cleaning products, and are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants filtration systems that were not designed to address such small contaminants. So, these microplastics beads flow down the drain and through waste water treatment plant and end up in our rivers, bays and oceans, where they may become a hazard to marine life. The polyethylene beads float and their scrubbing surfaces pick up contaminants which are consumed by marine life.
A study from the State University of New York at Fredonia confirmed that microplastics beads pass through waste water treatment systems into the Great Lakes introducing the possibility that microplastics are in the source water supplies for the drinking water systems. Though many plastics are buoyant and float, many other factors play a role in the “life cycle” of a piece of plastic in the ocean, lake or river. Sinking may occur due to the accumulation of biological material on the surface of the beads, and plastics may eventually settle into sediments, but we really do not know. The microplastics beads fouled with biological material may be eaten by marine life, the biofilm consumed, and the remaining undigested plastic packaged into fecal matter.
Scientists now believe that microplastics are consumed by marine life and can cause cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations in the digestive tracts of fish. Additionally, microplastics can pick up and accumulated chemical contaminants on their surfaces including priority pollutants under the US EPA Clean Water Act. This mixture of plastic and chemicals can accumulate in animals that eat them causing liver toxicity and disruption in the endocrine system, and possibly contributing to the intersexed fish that have appeared in rivers.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been leading efforts on this issue, recently discovering a high concentration in the Great Lakes. NOAA is working in partnership with the University of Washington Tacoma to standardized methods for collecting samples of microplastics from sediment, sand, and surface water so the problem can be fully quantified. While it seems likely that nearly all of the plastic that has ever been released to the waters of the earth remains as polymers, very little or any plastic fully degrades in the earth’s water environments, without systematic and effective ways to sample we cannot know for sure. Estimates of macro- and microplastics in the oceans, made by scientists and environmental groups are highly uncertain due to the lack of consistent, verified sampling and analytical methods.
It is difficult to determine or even reasonably estimate how large an impact microplastics bead might have on the environment. They can either be a source of pollutants or a location where pollutants can adhere and concentrate for the oceans, lakes and rivers and it was not even know how much is manufactured. Little was also known about the chemical composition and rates of leaching of integral plastic components in seawater and freshwater so it is impossible to estimate whether the plasticizers or flame retardants used in the manufacture of polyethylene will be released to the earth’s waters.However, the extensive damage from the ubiquitous microbeads was becoming obvious. Since 2012, when researchers found high concentrations of microbeads in the great lakes, environmentalists and scientists have campaigned to ban them.There are lots of concerns and possible impact from microbeads and it is clear that they should not have been allowed to be used so widely without a fate and transport study.
Now, manufacture of rinse off cosmetic products that contains intentionally-added plastic microbeads is banned beginning on July 1, 2017, and all such products containing microbeads must be removed from interstate commerce, by July 1, 2018. A simple one page bill and congress got it done.