Environment: Congress passes plastic microbead ban

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Microplastic pollution from the Rhine River. Photo courtesy University of Basel.

New law seen as big win for aquatic environments

Staff Report

After years of studies showing how plastic microbeads are polluting streams, lakes and oceans, the U.S. is set to adopt a new law that will phase out the manufacture of plastic microbeads by July 1, 2017 and the sale of beauty products containing plastic microbeads by July 1, 2018.

Similar to California’s historic microbead ban signed into law earlier this year, the Microbead Free Waters Act (H.R. 1321) bans all plastic microbeads, including those made from so-called “biodegradable plastics,” the majority of which do not biodegrade in marine environments.

The law is a big win for the environment, where the microbeads have been found in birds, crabs and fish, making their way through the food chain.

One recent study found that up to 90 percent of all seabirds have ingested plastic microparticles. In Australia, researchers say that plastic pollution adds insult to injury for already stressed corals along the Great Barrier Reef. And the problem won’t disappear with a ban — the plastic particles are also building up in ocean sediments.“Our oceans have been choking on these tiny plastic microbeads for way too long. This is a huge and important step toward protecting fish, birds and other ocean wildlife hurt by plastic pollution,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The law will prevent 1.4 trillion plastic microbeads from entering U.S. waterways each year. Plastic microbeads — designed to be washed down the drain and too small to be reliably captured by wastewater treatment facilities — pollute lakes, rivers and oceans.

Once in the environment, plastic microbeads concentrate toxins such as pesticides and flame retardants on their surface, which may then transfer to the tissue of fish that mistake microbeads for food. A recent study found that one quarter of fish found at California fish markets had ingested plastic. One tube of exfoliating facewash can contain more than 350,000 microbeads.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 1321 earlier this month. The bill now heads to President Obama for his approval.

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