News Feature | July 7, 2014

Microbeads, Polluting Waterways, Banned By Industry

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

A rare turn of events— industry and environmental groups appear to agree on something. 

Top companies have reached a deal to ban microbeads, and it was formalized by the Illinois state legislature this spring. Other states may follow suit, the Associated Press reported. New York, Ohio, and California are considering similar rules. 

The quick action surprised the environmental lobby. 

"Environmentalists in Illinois expected a battle royal over their call for a statewide ban on 'microbeads' – tiny bits of plastic used in personal care products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste that are flowing by the billions into the Great Lakes and other waterways. Discovered only recently, scientists say they’re showing up inside fish that are caught for human consumption," the Associated Press reported

Jen Walling of the Illinois Environmental Council, said she was not expecting change to come so quickly. “To have that happen in one year is rare,” she said to the AP. “I was not predicting we’d get it done at all.”

The AP analysis called the events "odd." It said the ban took shape "as one of the unlikeliest events in the politics of nature: a low-stress compromise by interest groups that are often at each other’s throats." 

Mark Biel of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois underscored the unusual nature of what happened. "Don’t get used to it. The quick deal resulted from unique circumstances, including the availability of substitute ingredients," the AP reported he said.

A recent report by the United Nations documented the harm caused by microbeads. "One emerging issue is the increasing use of microplastics directly in consumer products, such as microbeads in toothpaste, gels and facial cleansers," the report said. "These microplastics tend not to be filtered out during sewage treatment, but are released directly into rivers, lakes and the ocean." 

Plastics cause $13 billion of damage annually to aquatic environments, the report noted. "Since the beads are so small, fish and other marine life easily swallow them, causing DNA damage and even death," TIME reported

"A 2008 study from UK researchers showed that the plastics remained inside mussels for 48 days. Last year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Superior reported at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society that there were 1,500 to 1.7 million plastic particles per square mile in the Great Lakes," the TIME report said. 

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