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In Victory Against Pointless Plastic, Microbead Ban Signed Into Law

While Earth suffers 'death by a thousand cuts,' ban highlights much-needed environmental considerations

Microbeads are too small to be stopped by sewage treatment plants and, once in the waters, attract toxic chemicals and find their way into fish that eat them as if they were food.(Photo: QMI Agency/File)

Microbeads are too small to be stopped by sewage treatment plants and, once in the waters, attract toxic chemicals and find their way into fish that eat them as if they were food.(Photo: QMI Agency/File)

In a move described as a "micro-sized miracle," President Barack Obama on Monday signed into law a bill banning the manufacture of beauty products containing miniscule plastic particles, known as microbeads.

Environmental groups have long-sought such a ban and heralded the move as an "important step toward addressing the global crisis of microplastic pollution."

"Our oceans are inundated with microplastics that threaten sea birds, turtles and other marine wildlife. Now we can stop adding to the trillions of pieces already out there," said Blake Kopcho, oceans campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. 

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"This will eliminate a pointless and harmful source of plastic pollution before it ever has a chance to reach the oceans," Kopcho added.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act, passed by Congress last week, phases out the manufacture of face wash, toothpaste, and shampoo containing plastic microbeads by July 1, 2017 and the sale of such beauty products by July 1, 2018.

Scientists estimate that the ocean contains 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris.

Given that amount, Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, on Monday noted that "microbeads are only a small part of the much larger problem of marine debris."

However, Cohen says that the ban is a step towards addressing the larger issue of manufacturers introducing products to market (such as face washes with supposedly biodegradable plastic "scrubbers") without testing their impact on the environment.

He continues:

While policy attention is focused on large, world-scale issues such as climate change, the planet continues to die the death of a thousand cuts. We ignore the day-to-day destruction that derives from an economic paradigm that has not yet internalized the need to assess the environmental impacts of new technologies and products. It is clear that the hunger for economic growth and wealth pushes business and governments to ignore environmental impacts that are considered an inevitable byproduct of development. But this fails to account for the costs that will inevitably be borne when the damage must be cleaned up. A more careful production process with pollution control technologies may cost more in the short run, but it saves money in the long run.

"In a more crowded world with more and more technology being developed that can damage living fauna, flora and beings, we need to understand the full impact of the new technologies we are developing," Cohen writes. "This requires a deeper understanding of earth systems science and a deeper understanding of the main and side effects of all new technologies."

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