Congress and the White House are coming after your toothpaste, facial scrubs and body wash.
Beginning in mid-2017, tiny plastic beads found in some bath and beauty products will be prohibited. The ban, which President Obama signed into law in late December, is aimed at the billions of “microbeads” that some researchers estimate wash down U.S. drains every day, slip through sewage treatment plants and end up being eaten by fish in lakes, rivers and oceans.
“This is huge,” said Julie Lawson, executive director of Trash Free Maryland, an environmental group that helped push through a state ban on microbeads last year. “We’re not trying to get these products off the shelves. We’re trying to get manufacturers to change the way they make them.”
The tiny plastic beads are most often used as mild abrasives to exfoliate skin and strip away dirt and oil. They also put the colorful sparkle in some toothpastes and help fill in wrinkles in some “age-defying” make-up. Congressional researchers say hundreds of products contain microbeads and that a single bottle or tube can have hundreds of thousands of the tiny particles.
Once they wash down drains and reach sewage treatment plants, they can slip through filters that weren’t designed for such small particles and end up discharged into waterways, where they look like tiny eggs. Fish that eat them can suffer problems, researchers say, and end up on dinner plates.
Drinking water drawn from the same waterways with the beads isn’t considered a risk, environmental activists say, because water filtration plants screen out smaller contaminants than sewage treatment facilities.
“They are so small, and there are so many of them,” said George S. Hawkins, general manager of District of Columbia Water, which provides drinking water in Washington and sewage treatment for the city and surrounding suburbs. “The worry was they’re getting through our systems and into rivers and becoming part of the food chain.”
While there’s been relatively little research into the prevalence of beads in waterways, the problem drew national attention in 2013, after a study found colorful microbeads in the Great Lakes. A 2015 study estimated that, nationwide, 808 billion beads are washed down drains daily. Up to 99 percent of those probably settle out at the sewage treatment plant and end up in leftover sludge, those researchers said. However, even the relatively scant numbers that get through treatment plants amount to an estimated 8 billion daily reaching waterways, the study found.
John Hurson, who oversees government affairs for the Personal Care Products Council, said manufacturers can replace the beads with natural materials, such as sand, sugar or ground-up walnut shells. It’s unclear how the change will affect product costs, he said.
He said companies used the plastic beads because they’re safe, non-allergenic and gentle on the skin. But he said some companies, particularly European manufacturers, began discontinuing them voluntarily in the early 2000s, after a late-1990s study raised the possibility that they were getting through sewage treatment facilities.
Hurson said the industry is responsible for a “minuscule portion” of microplastics found in waterways because they also come from clothing fibers, boat paint particles and degrading plastic bags and bottles. Even so, he said, the industry supported environmental groups’ calls for a national standard on microbeads after at least eight states passed similar bans in the past two years.
“It made sense to us to be very supportive of a national phaseout,” Hurson said.
Even with limited scientific data on a relatively new issue, the legislation enjoyed an unusual level of bipartisan support, sailing through Congress with little controversy.
“This is a very strange example of the policy being quicker than the science,” said Chelsea Rochman, one of the researchers on the 2015 study. “But we know enough about microplastics to know they’re a concern for wildlife.”
The federal ban, activists said, goes further than the state laws because it takes effect sooner and doesn’t allow exceptions. It pertains only to microbeads in toothpaste and “rinse-off” products, so it doesn’t cover those in deodorants, lotions or make-up. It also doesn’t affect plastic abrasives in household cleaners.