An encouraging step forward in the fight against marine debris was made by US Congress at the end of 2015. Barack Obama has signed a bill to ban the use of plastic microbeads (found in exfoliators) in rinse-off cosmetics, enacting the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.
While several American states had already issued bans on products containing microbeads, this interstate law sends a clear message that more needs to be done to tackle the growing problem of marine litter.
The leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, has called for the UK to follow suit and issue a similar ban. Bennett told the Independent: “The US has acted, and the UK should be acting right now. The evidence is clear and unequivocal: microbeads in cosmetics products are ending up in our waters, in our sealife, and in our own bodies, with pesticides and other chemicals attached.”
Celebrities have also started calling for a UK microbead ban. Musician Ellie Goulding tweeted her support for a petition to save our seas and ban microbeads, which prompted many of her followers to sign the petition.
UPDATE: Read our more recent news about microbeads
What are microbeads?
Microbeads are tiny plastic particles, usually made from polyethylene (PE), that are less than five millimetres in size, however in reality most microbeads in cosmetics are very much smaller than this, measuring around the thickness of a human hair.
Microbeads are added to some cosmetic products such as scrubs, toothpastes and washes to give an exfoliating action. When these products are rinsed off, the microbeads are washed down the drain and are too small to be filtered out at sewage treatment plants. As a result, millions of tiny plastics are released into the water and can be eaten by fish. We in turn eat the fish and may unwittingly ingest these toxins.
Green People has never used plastic microbeads in any of its products. Instead ingredients such as Apricot Kernel powder, Bamboo powder, Sugar and fruit enzymes are used to give fantastic exfoliating effects for smoother, more radiant skin, naturally.
Shop our microbead-free cosmetics
When will microbeads be banned in America?
The new U.S. legislation passed by Congress means that no rinse-off cosmetic product will be manufactured containing microbeads after 1st July 2017, and such products may not be sold through interstate commerce after 1st July 2018.
However, cosmetics that are also classed as a non-prescription drug by the FDA will have different thresholds for the removal of microbeads. Products such as sun lotions, antiperspirants, fluoride toothpastes and anti-dandruff shampoos can still be made using microbeads until 1st July 2018 and can be sold until July 2019.
Sweden to follow suit?
Shortly after the ban was passed in America, the Swedish Chemicals Agency Kemi has proposed a similar ban on the use of plastic microbeads in rinse off cosmetics. While this has not yet come into law, Kemi has proposed that the ban come into effect from 1st January 2018.
As part of its government-mandated report, Kemi also said that an alternative to a Swedish ban would be to create EU legislation to ban microbeads on a much wider scale, something that would be welcomed by campaigners.
The plastic problem
Green People has always championed the use of non-plastic exfoliators and this new bill is a huge victory for environmental groups and charities that have campaigned against microbeads for many years. One such charity is the Marine Conservation Society, which launched the ‘Scrub It Out!’ campaign in 2014 to raise awareness of the dangers of microbeads to marine ecosystems and to give consumers an easy way to choose products that don’t contain damaging plastics.
Eliminating plastic microbeads in US cosmetics is a small step towards a cleaner, greener planet and puts pressure on other countries like the UK to follow suit.
Despite this victory, there is undeniably a long way to go in clearing up our oceans. Writing in National Geographic Laura Parker observes: "The numbers are staggering: there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that mass, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometre litter the deep sea.”
Clearly this is not a problem that can be solved with one new law, however the fact that this new legislation has been passed is a very positive sign that environmental issues are being taken more seriously by the people in power.
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Update: January 2018
Since this post was published, a production ban on using microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products has come into force in the UK. The ban prevents manufacturers from using microbeads in their products with immediate effect, and stipulates that retailers will no longer be able to sell products containing microbeads as of July 2018. The ban comes after campaigners called for microplastics to be removed from all cosmetic and personal care products due to the harm they pose to marine life and the contamination risk they pose to global drinking water supplies.
Whilst campaigners celebrate a victory against microbeads their fight to protect the planet from pollutant plastics continues. Environmental Scientists are now turning their attention to glitter and calling for its use in cosmetics to reviewed. Often made from plastic, when glitter goes down the plug hole it can be consumed by marine life and end up in the human food chain. Far from adding a touch of sparkle to our suppers, the plastic used to make glitter is thought to release chemicals that can disrupt hormones in the bodies of animals and humans. Campaigners are calling for manufacturers that use glitter in their products to consider using safer, non-toxic biodegradable plastic instead.
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