By Nina Wu
U.S. Congress could not agree on much in 2015, but surprisingly, it agreed that microbeads in cosmetic products should go in order to protect our oceans.
In December, both the U.S. House and Senate quickly passed the "Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015," prohibiting the manufacture and introduction of rinse-off cosmetics containing intentially-added plastic microbeads.
In between golfing and dining at Honolulu's fine restaurants during his annual winter vacation here, President Barack Obama signed the bill into law Dec. 28. He might have already made up his mind to sign the bill when Congress swept it through in December. But maybe, just maybe, he was inspired while enjoying the fine white sands of the beach in Kailua, which are embedded with a perpetual stream of microplastic debris that wash ashore.
The nationwide ban on manufacturing goes into effect July 1, 2017, while the ban on sales goes into effect in 2018.
Environmental advocates like Surfrider Foundation, 5Gyres, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii and Story of Stuff, which supported the "Ban the Bead" movement celebrated it as a victory. But Kahi Pacarro, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii says the group would have preferred the ban go into effect sooner.
"Between now and the time it does go into effect, it allows microbead producers and consumers to continue to pollute without consequence," he wrote in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, here's what you need to know:
>> How do you know if your cosmetic product has microbeads? If your toothpaste, face or body wash lists polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene, it probably contains microbeads. A list specifically for Hawaii is available at beatthemicrobead.org/images/pdf/red-hawaii.pdf.
>> Beat the Microbead, an international initiative, actually launched an app that lists products as red (avoid) or green (free of microbeads). Learn more at beatthemicrobead.org. Surprisingly, the list of red products include everything from 3D White Luxe toothpaste by Crest to cleansers by Neutrogena and Aveeno. The 2-in-1 wash and scrub at Victoria's Secret is on the list, too. If you click on the list for Hong Kong, you'll find several Shiseido beauty products as well.
>> Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, co-founders of 5 Gyres, study trash around the world's oceans but discovered these microbeads in the Great Lakes. Just one tube of exfoliating face wash could contain more than 350,000 microbeads. An estimated 2.9 trillion microbeads enter U.S. waterways each year. Once in the marine ecosystem, the microbeads absorb toxins that are transferred to fish that mistake them for food.
>> The tiny plastic particles, or microbeads, in these personal care products can easily be replaced with natural ones such as sea salt, apricot kernels or jojoba. The microbeads are designed to go down the drain, but are difficult to filter out through wastewater treatment systems due to their small size.
>> The Society for Conservation Biology confirmed that the microbeads pose a threat to the environment, resulting in adverse health effects in wildlife and people.
Members of the Surfrider Foundation were among supporters pushing for a bill to ban the microbeads at the Hawaii legislature last year as part of its Rise Above Plastics campaign. The bill did not pass. Several other U.S. states, including California, had passed a ban, but the federal one offers an earlier start date and covers self-defined "bioplastic" microbeads, which are also an environmental concern because they dont' actually biodegrade.
Stuart Coleman, Hawaii coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation, was surprised how fast the bill passed through Congress despite its bipartisan divide. Next, the Surfrider Foundation will work on banning polystyrene foam, which most people call Styrofoam.
"We've got to work together," said Coleman. "It's not us versus them. It's what's best for our health and environment because they're almost always related."
Video from 5Gyres: