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Our View: Consumers can speed up microbeads' elimination

Published: Tuesday, June 17, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Illinois is the first state in the country to ban the use of microbeads, small plastic particles commonly used as abrasives in personal hygiene products such as facial scrubs, cosmetics and toothpaste.

The headline sounds groundbreaking, but the details are not so bold. The measure’s drawn-out timeline, which bans the manufacture of products with microbeads by 2018 and the sale of products containing them by 2019, ensures that the tiny plastic particles will continue to be washed down our drains for years to come.

Consumers should speed up the timeline for this phase-out by simply not buying the products.

The legislation was passed in collaboration with cosmetics lobbying group The Personal Care Council. At the least, it will force cosmetics companies to stick to their own timelines for phasing out microbeads and prevent other companies from stepping in to manufacture products containing them.

These tiny plastic particles have the potential to become a big pollution problem.

Scientific studies have shown microbeads – tiny plastic balls less than a millimeter in diameter – have found their way into the world’s oceans and the Great Lakes, where they can pose a risk to fish and those of us higher up on the food chain.

A single tube of facial soap can contain more than 300,000 microbeads, according to 5 Gyres, an environmental organization that fights plastics pollution around the world. Microbeads are designed to be washed down the drain. The beads float, and are so small that they often aren’t filtered out of the wastewater stream at treatment plants. After wastewater is treated, the water and the beads are discharged into waterways, where they add to the plastics pollution already in the environment.

The beads can absorb trace amounts of toxic chemicals that may be present in the water. Their appearance also makes them look like food to fish. And fish are food for people.

A report this year from New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office estimated that almost 19 tons of microbeads were being added to that state’s wastewater stream each year.

In response to the pollution concerns, environmental activists have pressured many companies to abandon microbeads in favor of alternative abrasives, such as oatmeal, ground almonds and pumice.

Several leading companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, The Body Shop and L’Oreal have pledged to phase out their use, The Associated Press reported.

But we don’t have to wait for the companies to phase out these microbeads, or for the state of Illinois to ban them. Consumers have the power to make more educated choices.

Don’t want to add to the tons of plastic being washed down America’s drains and into its waterways? Don’t buy products with “exfoliating microbeads.”

If enough people change their buying habits, these plastic pollutant products will be phased out much sooner than 2019.

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