Congress unites to protect the oceans from plastic microbeads
It’s estimated that 808 trillion plastic microbeads are washed down U.S. drains every day. The vast majority are captured in the settled sludge of sewer treatment plants. But some 8 to 11 trillion of them still find their way into the aquatic environment daily. There, they collect deadly pollutants like PCBs and are eaten by fresh and saltwater creatures, who in turn are eaten by larger creatures all the way up the food chain to humans. But, thanks to passage of H.R.1321, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, production of microbeads is banned after July 2017.
That’s a welcome and somewhat surprising result given the usual attitudes about environmental matters on the Republican side of the aisle. But the bill introduced by Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey last March picked up 36 other co-sponsors, five of them Republican, and it sped through approval by the House. The Senate then passed it by unanimous consent without changing a word. That’s usually the kind of reception only given to the naming of post offices.
The tiny microbeads are used as skin exfoliants in soaps and other cleansers as well as scrubbers in some brands of toothpaste. Hard natural materials—ground-up nut shells or seeds—were exclusively used for this purpose in the past. But while the plastic version of these scrubbers don’t do a better job than organic particles, they are far cheaper to produce in the mass quantities required. While the natural particles decay quickly, however, cast-off plastic microbeads can hang around in the environment for decades or longer.
Once there they collect pollutants that have been implicated as purveyors of birth defects, cancer, and developmental problems. Plus, plastic microbeads can also release Bisphenol-A (BPA), which is known for interfering with hormones, particularly estrogen, and linked to cancer and diabetes.
Some counties and several states have already enacted their own bans, and nearly half the states have considered doing so. The ban encountered little opposition in Congress because there is little opposition in the cosmetics industry that makes microbeads. Indeed, all makers had pledged to phase out production before the bill passed. But few had offered timelines.
Environmental advocates naturally celebrated the ban as a victory. But they say this is just a piece of what needs to be done given that microbeads make up only a small portion of the 8 million tons of plastic debris that make their way into the oceans each year. This includes everything from bits of fishing nets to plastic grocery bags. We’ve seen how these discards can entangle marine animals, leading to their maiming and death. But some plastic debris winds up on beaches from Cabo San Lucas to the Arctic. There, the sun breaks them into smaller pieces, where, just like microbeads, they attract pollutants and hungry animals.
Jenna Jambeck, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia, recently completed a peer-reviewed study that appeared in Science. She says the annual total amounts to “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world” — a visualization that, she said, “sort of blew my mind.” If the trend continues, she says, that will be 10 full grocery bags per foot by 2025.
Marcus Eriksen, a co-founder and the director of research for 5 Gyres, an activist group focused on keeping plastic out of the oceans, said microbeads were “low-hanging fruit.” If only Congress could be spurred to act against other plastic leftovers with the same bipartisanship exhibited with the microbead ban, we could claim to be making real progress in controlling this lethal blight.