Illinois becomes first state to ban plastic microbeads

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Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a bill banning the sale or manufacture of products with plastic microbeads in Illinois completely by 2019, making his state the first to kick out the polyethelyene bits.

The new law bans the manufacture of personal care products containing microbeads by the end of 2017 in the state, and the sale of those products by the end of 2018. Over-the-counter drug manufacturers must phase out manufacturing with microbeads by the end of 2018 and the sale of OTC products by the end of 2019.

 “Banning microbeads will help ensure clean waters across Illinois and set an example for our nation to follow,” Quinn said in a press release. “Lake Michigan and the many rivers and lakes across our state are among our most important natural resources. We must do everything necessary to safeguard them.”

California, Minnesota, New York and Ohio have similar legislation in the works, but the cosmetics industry is already taking on the microbead problem, with many large companies aiming to remove the plastic from their products before the new laws would kick in.

5 Gyres quietly approached Unilever at the end of 2012 and popular retail chain The Body Shop in early 2013, urging the companies to disavow PE microbeads after the environmental group’s study of the Great Lakes in 2012 found 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer (0.39 square mile) in two different Lake Erie water samples.

Unilever has pledged to remove microbeads from its products as of Jan. 1, 2015, as has The Body Shop. Johnson & Johnson plans to be free of microbeads by the end of 2015 and Procter & Gamble expects its PE phaseout to take until 2017.

Microbeads have only become popular in the cosmetics market in the last decade, as a gentle exfoliating alternative to items such as ground walnut shells, which can have sharp edges that tear sensitive skin or pose an allergy risk to some consumers. But existing water treatment facilities are not designed to capture such small pieces of debris and the 0.3 millimeter microbeads literally slip through the cracks and into the watershed.