Washington — A House committee this week moved forward on a bill that would ban the manufacture or sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads in the United States.
The bill (HR 1321) would ban the U.S. manufacture of products with microbeads starting July 1, 2017, and the sale of products containing the plastic pieces, imported or domestic, as of July 1, 2019. It also would define “microbead” as “any solid plastic particle that is less than 5 millimeters in size.”
The measure now moves on to the full House; a Senate version introduced by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) has stalled out in committee action, but the House bill could conceivably be taken up in the other chamber before the end of the session.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), applies to any non-prescription, rinse-off cosmetic product. Pallone said while he is not usually a fan of federal laws that pre-empt state or local decisions, he was convinced after the committee's May hearing that a national law was necessary — and that he intentionally crafted a bill that would be more aggressive than any state law passed so far.
While the non-controversial, bipartisan bill has inched through Congress since spring, states and counties have been taking matters into their own hands. Pallone's home state of New Jersey in March became the second to pass a microbead ban after Illinois in 2014. California soon followed suit, as did five New York counties after the state legislature's efforts flopped.
Microbeads have only become popular in the cosmetics market over 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 the plastic bits are small enough to slip through municipal water treatment facilities and into the watershed and eventually, when eaten by fish, the food supply.
Cosmetics companies began pledging to remove microbeads from products in 2013, after a study by California-based environmental group 5 Gyres found 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer in Lake Erie water samples. Unilever plans to complete its microbead phase-out this year along with 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. However, none of the pledges are legally binding.