Obama has sanctioned a plastic microbead ban, in an effort to curb pollution affecting marine habitats and wildlife.
Microbeads are basically tiny balls of plastic (usually polyethylene, and smaller than 5 millimeters) which are commonly added to personal hygiene products like toothpaste or soap, or to beauty products like exfoliating scrubs and polishers.
While they may have become a modern-day fixture, in fact they are extremely detrimental to the environment, especially when they enter the waste water stream, where they can’t be properly filtered, therefore piling up in rivers, lakes and canals.
In fact, up to 8 trillion such tiny plastic pieces reach water supplies on a daily basis, the equivalent of 300 tennis courts plastered with microbeads, and around 800 trillion more end up on land or return to the ocean as runoff.
Since the fragments can’t be broken down into less harmful substances, these nurdles usually persist in the water for decades on end, causing a phenomenon called plastic particle water pollution (nicknamed “mermaids’ tears”).
The microbeads pose significant danger to marine wildlife, because many fish species or turtles swallow these small plastic fragments, choking on them or being poisoned due to the high levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that these spheres tend to absorb.
This also affects humans, who consume fish meals such as sushi or fillets, unwittingly also ingesting numerous contaminants and toxins, which can negatively impact their health.
Given these risks, the prohibition of such compounds in cosmetics and personal hygiene products has been on regulators’ minds for years.
In 2012 for instance, the Plastic Soup Foundation and the North Sea Foundation created an app through which Dutch users were able to verify if a specific personal care product actually had microbeads in its list of ingredients.
This initiative rapidly took flight, being embraced by the world’s first conservation organization (Fauna and Flora International), as well as by the United Nations Environment Program, which helped the campaign turn global.
As greater awareness has been raised against the far-reaching consequences of plastic particle water pollution, more and more companies have pledged that they would gradually stop incorporating nurdles in their products.
Such corporations aiming to be more eco-friendly have included the Body Shop, L’Oréal, Unilever, Adidas, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson.
Steps in this direction have also been taken by lawmakers across the United States. Back in 2014, New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. put forward a bill against the use of microbeads in personal hygiene products and cosmetics.
Eventually, on December 7, 2015 this proposal was modified in order to refer just to rinse-off lotions, creams and gels (including toothpaste) and was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Backed by the American Chemistry Council, alongside other associations, the bill managed to gain the support of the Congress as well, on December 18, finally being signed into a law by president Barack Obama 10 days afterwards.
The legislation, now known as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, makes it illegal for companies to knowingly produce or commercialize rinse-off personal care products containing microbeads.
This interdiction will be in effect starting from July 1, 2017, manufacturers and retailers having a 2-year deadline to completely discontinue the practice of making microbead-based products widely available to consumers.
As explained by Senator Rob Portman, the federal law will assist in diminishing the amount of pollutants reaching Lake Erie and other waterbodies, and will override decisions taken at state level, such as the Illinois bill against microbeads which was supposed to be effective starting from January 1, 2018.
Such laws had also been approved in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey and Wisconsin, most states still accepting biodegradable microbeads, with California forbidding even this type of bioplastic.
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