President Barack Obama's signature has made the phase-in of federal ban on plastic microbeads official starting in 2017.
The new law bans the U.S. manufacture of personal-care products such soaps, body washes, toothpaste and similar products from containing microbeads, which are usually made of polyethylene, as of July 1, 2017, and the sale of products containing microbeads, imported or domestic, as of July 1, 2019.
It also defines “microbead” as “any solid plastic particle that is less than 5 millimeters in size.”
Though nine states have already passed their own microbead bans, the federal law preempts them and is stricter than the existing state and county laws, with an earlier effective date. It also leaves no loophole for biodegradable plastics.
The tiny plastic particles have only become popular as gentle, allergen-free exfoliators in the last decade or so — though it turns out the PE pieces are small enough to slip through municipal water treatment facilities. The rush to get microbeads out of personal care products began in 2013, when a study by California-based environmental group 5 Gyres reported finding 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer (0.39 square mile) in Lake Erie water samples.
Soon after, personal care product makers began pledging to remove them, with Unilever, along with Body Shop, removing them from products as of Jan. 1, 2015. Johnson & Johnson has said the company will be free of microbeads by the end of 2015 and grocery store chain Wegman's will have products containing them off the shelves nationwide by the end of February. Procter & Gamble expects its PE phaseout to take until 2017. However, none of the pledges are legally binding.
The plastics industry supported the bipartisan bill, penned by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), as it made its way through Congress to the president's desk.
“ACC and its members applaud President Obama and the U.S. Congress for taking this important step to ensure there is one sensible, national standard to phase out solid-plastic microbeads from rinse-off personal care products across America,” said the American Chemistry Council in a Dec. 28 statement. “This new law reflects national product stewardship efforts by the personal care industry to phase out the use of solid plastic microbeads used in personal care exfoliating products.
“ACC and our global partners have launched more than 185 projects under our Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter since 2011. Support for microbead legislation is one such project.”