WASHINGTON — It's not often that Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists and industry associations agree — especially on matters involving plastics — but when it comes to the matter of microbeads, there is consensus: they're on the way out.
At a U.S. House Committee hearing May 1, members quizzed witnesses on possible alternatives to the 0.3 millimeter bits of polyethylene and polypropylene that serve as gentle exfoliators but also easily find their way into the watershed. With biodegradable plastics are not yet a viable choice, a bill to ban plastic microbeads from personal care products sounded like an inevitability.
"Because they are so small, [microbeads] escape water filtration systems and end up in our bodies of water, including the Great Lakes. They are known to absorb pollutants and are often mistaken as food by fish and wildlife. Simply put, microbeads are causing mega-problems," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who authored a bill (HR 1321) with Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) to ban microbeads from personal care products sold in the United States starting in 2018.
Pallone's home state of New Jersey was one of the first to enact a statewide ban on products with microbeads late last year; the ban would be phased in from 2018 to 2020. In fact, since a 2013 study by environmental group 5 Gyres found 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer (0.39 square mile) in Lake Erie water samples, 26 states have considered some kind of microbead ban or restriction. Cosmetics companies have also already gotten into the act, with Unilever has pledging 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.
But the bill's supporters say leaving everything up to corporations or the states would be a mistake, and more difficult for all.
"There's no point in having 50 different laws," New Jersey state Sen. Linda Greenstein said in testimony May 1. "And I think it would behoove us to have a federal law that makes it very clear to the industry where we're going."
Some of the bill's wrinkles still need to be ironed out, including agreeing on a definition for "plastic microbeads" and the question of certain over-the-counter products like toothpaste and acne washes, which frequently contain microbeads but come under special U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. Reformulation by companies and recertification by the FDA may require a longer lead time before the ban goes into effect for those OTC products.
Though they expressed thorough support for the bill in testimony and letters, industry trade groups have no illusions about a federal microbead ban instantly solving the problem of marine microplastics pollution.
"There's no definitive science on the sourcing of all microbeads that are out there, but at least we can start here," said John Hurson, executive vice president of government relations for the Personal Care Products Council.
According to aides, lawmakers expect to see action on the bipartisan bill to bar products containing microbeads from U.S. store shelves later this year.