At the end of December, President Obama passed a law to ban the exfoliating component of many hygiene products. From toothpaste and face soaps to body washes and polishing scrubs, microbeads have become a part of many Americans’ daily routines. These tiny scrubbers help eliminate oil and dirt from skin and teeth.
However, microbeads are potentially harmful to our ecosystem. There are more than eight trillion microbeads entering aquatic habitats every day in the United States alone, according to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology. To put things in perspective, that’s enough microbeads to cover 300 tennis courts daily.
A microbead is defined as any solid plastic particle that is less than 5 millimeters in diameter. Microbeads do not dissolve and after they are washed down the drain, they make their way into our rivers, lakes and oceans. Being that they are about the size of a pinhead, they are extremely difficult to clean up. Microbeads additionally slip through the filters in our wastewater treatment plants. Once discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans, marine wildlife cannot distinguish the microbeads from food.
“When they eat the beads, the plastic bits don't just pass through the animals' stomachs like normal food. Instead, the beads often become lodged in their stomachs or intestines. When this happens, the animals can stop eating and die of starvation, or suffer other health problems,” reports Business Insider.
Scientists have also shown thatplastic pellets can harbor polluting chemicals, potentially causing problems for the food chain and our food supply. Drinking water drawn from the same waterways with the beads is not considered a risk, environmental activists say, because water filtration plants screen out smaller contaminants than sewage treatment facilities.
The International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics has compiled lists of products that contain microbeads. “The list is not comprehensive, so you should always check a cleanser’s ingredient list for polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, polylactic acid, or nylon— these are the most common plastics that make up microbeads,” advises Forbes contributor Carmen Drahl, Ph.D.
Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and Procter & Gamble have all pledged to phase out the most common kind of microbead from their products. Several states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland Minnesota and New Jersey, have already implemented regulations or bans on the plastic products.
While the new law does not go into effect nationwide until July 1, 2017, we encourage everyone to begin protecting our environment now by tossing any offending products and committing to becoming more informed about the effects of your purchasing decisions on the environment.