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U.S. Government Takes Important Step Toward Banning Ocean-Clogging Microbeads

The tiny plastic beads are found in soaps, cosmetic treatments, and toothpastes.

Ocean trash. Image via Flickr user Hillary Daniels

On Monday, the U.S. House of Representative passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which would phase out the use of microbeads in soaps, toothpastes, and other products by 2018. These tiny plastic beads, often used for their exfoliating abilities, “make for big-time pollution,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement.

Upton is right: The very small beads are a major problem for marine life—and eventually, your dinner plate. After you wash your microbead-filled products down the sink, the plastic beads can escape the filtration process of many wastewater treatment plants because of their size. After that, they arrive in oceans and lakes.

As NPR explained last year, the beads look awfully like fish eggs, which is appetizing food to many creatures. Once ingested, however, the beads can “soak up toxins like a sponge.” When creatures up the food chain—including humans—eat animals that have consumed these microbeads, they’re eating not only the plastic, but everything the plastic has absorbed along the way.

Image via Flickr user Oregon State University

The other thing to know about microbeads is that they are everywhere. One study, by researchers at SUNY Fredonia, found 17,000 teeny microbeads per square kilometer in Lake Michigan. Another, from Oregon State University, estimated that about 8 billion microbeads make it into U.S. aquatic habitats every day. That’s “2.9 trillion beads per year, enough to wrap around the Earth more than seven times if lined up end to end.”

If you’d rather think of it in financial terms, research by the United Nations Environment Program found that microbeads are a growing contributor to the $13 billion worth of damage that plastic waste does to marine environments each year.

A number of states have banned microbeads, but the bill passed by the House earlier this week marks the first federal legislation targeting them. Now the Microbead-Free Waters Act moves to the Senate. But as TakePart points out, it’s already a bit late:

If the Microbead-Free Waters Act is signed into law and follows the schedule listed in the bill, we’re looking at another 935 microbead-filled days to go, or 7.48 quadrillion microparticles released into American waterways over the next two and a half years.

Meanwhile, you can help by voting with your wallet. Avoid purchasing products with microbeads by companies like Aveeno, Crest, Clean & Clear, and Neutrogena, whose soaps and toothpastes can contain up to 2.8 million plastic beads per 5-ounce bottle.

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