Federal Government Bans Harmful Microbeads In Facial Soap And Toothpaste

It's about time.

President Obama has stood up for the environment by banning a tiny product creating a huge problem: microbeads. 

Microbeads are tiny plastic spheres, typically less than 5 millimeters in diameter. They are added to facial cleansers and some kinds of toothpaste in order to exfoliate and provide a "deeper clean." Though they be but little, they are fiercely dangerous for the environment. On the surface, microbeads seem much too small to do much damage, but their size is actually what is causing great concern for marine life. 

Once they have been used to scrub someone's face and get washed down the drain, the particles are too small to be filtered out by wastewater treatment facilities. With the rest of the treated water, these microbeads get dumped out into lakes and rivers. Because the pieces of plastic aren't biodegradable, they accumulate at a tremendous rate. 

According to a recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology, upwards of 8 trillion microbeads enter the environment every single day, which is enough to cover a tennis court, 300 times over.

Small fish and other marine animals confuse the brightly colored plastics with food and eat them by mistake. Assuming they don't puncture the animal's digestive tract, they just sit in the stomach, unable to be digested. Once the animal has consumed enough of the microbeads, there is no longer any room for actual food, starving them. As these animals get eaten by larger ones, the microbeads crawl up the food chain.

In addition to starving any marine animals who eat these beads, the plastic beads can also release toxins picked up during their time in the sewer. When they enter waterways, these pollutants can affect the ecosystem, as well as cause detrimental effects to the animals that consume them.

This federal ban of microbeads comes after a number of states — California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, and New Jersey — have banned the products. Many top manufacturers of microbead-laden products including L'Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble have already begun seeking eco-friendly alternatives and are phasing out harmful microbeads from their products.

Obama's signature on H.R. 1321 will make it illegal for manufacturers to create microbeads for exfoliating or cleansing purposes beginning in July 2017, with delivery and sale ending in July 2018.

Though banning the production and sale of microbeads is an important step forward, there is still a lot of work to do to clean up the damage that has already occurred, in addition to dealing with the amount of microbeads that will accumulate in the ecosystem until the ban is enacted, which will total well above 4 quadrillion by then. That's a lot of tennis courts.

In order to help curb the effect on the environment, avoid products containing microbeads and find alternative ways to exfoliate, including loofas, natural sponges, or a salt scrub. 

Cover image: Shutterstock