Conservation & Science

Microbeads banned! A victory over ocean plastic pollution

Congress and the White House just cooperated—with remarkable bipartisan speed—to eliminate a source of plastic pollution in the ocean. It’s a welcome development, and one that offers hope for action to eliminate even greater volumes of plastic trash that threatens marine life and human health.

Tiny plastic microbeads can absorb harmful chemicals like PCBs and DDT, which then make their way into the food web. Photo courtesy Alliance for the Great Lakes.
Tiny plastic microbeads can absorb harmful chemicals like PCBs and DDT, which then make their way into the food web. Photo courtesy Alliance for the Great Lakes.

In mid December, the House and Senate voted nearly unanimously to pass the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 (H.R. 1321), phasing out production and sale of plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics beginning in 2017. The bill was signed into law on Monday by President Barack Obama.

Microbeads are tiny plastic balls often used as exfoliants in everything from soap and facial scrub to toothpaste. When we rinse them off, they wash down the drain and flow into the ocean, lakes and rivers, where they can absorb other pollutants such as DDT and PCBs. Fish and other marine animals often mistake microbeads for food, concentrating these toxins up the food chain—potentially ending up in seafood on our plates.

Monterey Bay Aquarium and other leading public aquariums nationwide supported the passage of statewide microbeads bans in California and in other states. The California law set the nation’s highest bar on restricting such products, and the variations in bills introduced or enacted at the state level fueled support for H.R. 1321. At the federal level, we worked to strengthen the language of the Microbead-Free Waters Act, urged Congress to pass the bill and asked President Obama to sign it into law. 

We're working to work to eliminate other sources of ocean plastic pollution that threaten wildlife, including single-use grocery bags. Photo © Terry McCormack.
We’re working to eliminate other sources of plastic pollution that threaten ocean wildlife, including single-use grocery bags. Photo © Terry McCormack.

The federal microbeads ban succeeded thanks to bipartisan leadership and with the support of the cosmetics industry. It’s the same sort of leadership we’ll need to reduce other forms of plastic pollution in the ocean. A study published in the journal Science in February 2015 found that up to 13 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. 

We’re now cooperating with more than 20 leading aquariums across the nation on initiatives to reduce other sources of ocean and freshwater plastic pollution. As one example, in California, we’re working for a yes vote in November 2016 when voters must decide whether to uphold a statewide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags.

There’s a long way to go before our ocean is plastic free—but we’re making progress. With your help, we can accomplish even more.

Learn more about our work to preserve the health of the ocean.

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