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Heliotrope San Francisco

 Microbeads

Illinois took a stand this month and banned the sale of skin care products containing plastic microbeads. These microbeads, found most commonly in scrubs (for body and face), do a thorough job of cleaning pores and scraping away dead skin, but it comes at the expense of also tearing and irritating the skin. As if that weren't bad enough, they're wreaking havoc on marine life, both saltwater and fresh.

report recently published by the U.N. Environment Programme says plastic waste causes $13 billion in damage every year to marine life. Since the beads are so small, fish and other marine life easily swallow them, causing DNA damage and even death. A 2008 study from UK researchers showed that the plastics remained inside mussels for 48 days. Last year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Superior reported at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society that there were 1,500 to 1.7 million plastic particles per square mile in the Great Lakes.


As a native Michigander, that last bit breaks my heart. Those gigantic bodies of fresh water, which account for one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water, are of great import. We're killing off the wildlife that relies upon those Great Lakes because major skin care companies decided that increasing profit was more important than the health of a vital ecosystem.

There are numerous accessible and natural alternatives to plastic microbeads for exfoliation; ground fruit seeds, nuts, bamboo, sugar, oats, salt, coffee (glorious, delicious coffee), etc. We at Heliotrope favor oats and bamboo currently, but just about anything is better than plastic.

Illinois has made a breakthrough effort to get the ball rolling on this, and the movement is definitely picking up steam.

The Illinois ban is encouraging for other states pushing similar laws, and the fact that Illinois’ new ban had industry players on board means cooperation is possible in other regions, too. “This was a cooperative effort with the industry in order to address our and their concerns,” says Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “In the end, we were trying to get something that would pass. Other states should try for more stringent standards.”

Walling says she’s happy with the results, though she wishes the timeline was shorter. Manufacturers have a phase out period between 2017-2019. Other states like New York, California and Ohio are trying to pass similar bans. California wants to allow biodegradable beads, and New York lawmakers, which worked with plastic-fighting group 5 Gyres, have so far received positive response to their legislation. Earlier this summer, New Jersey democrat U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. introduced a bill that would make a nationwide ban possible in 2018.

We agree with Walling; the timeline should be shorter. We've learned for a fact that these microbeads are killing marine life, so why the wait?

Written by Don Snider — June 27, 2014

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