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Why The U.K. Is Calling For A Global Ban On A Common Bath Product Ingredient

Microbeads exfoliate nicely, but they are the scourge of the ocean.

[Photo: Nik_Merkulov/iStock]

Microbeads are on their way out, at last. The U.S. already banned them, and now the U.K. wants the tiny plastic terrors to be prohibited internationally.

Microbeads are those tiny plastic grains inside exfoliating soaps and shower gels. When they’re done helping you slough off dead skin cells, they get washed down the drain, hundreds of thousands of beads at a time, and enter rivers, lakes, and then animals. The brands are too tiny to be filtered out, so they end up polluting waterways, attracting toxins, and being ingested by marine life and seabirds. Some 800 trillion microbeads end up in waterways or sewage sludge each day in the U.S.

In the U.S., a new federal ban means that microbeads will be gone from all products by 2017. And now the U.K. is recommending the same. Britain’s Environmental Audit Committee recommends that the government ban all microbeads in cosmetics and other toiletries. This would stop the problem quickly and also has the advantage that it affects everyone equally, "preventing responsible companies being undercut," says the report.

[Photo: via greatlakes.org]

The problem with a country-specific ban, though, is that pollution doesn't care about borders. Thus, the recommendation is that the EU should also ban microbeads. (That was before Brexit got in the way, which means that the U.K. won’t get a say in the design of any EU ban.)

The industry can't be trusted to act quickly either. In 2013, Johnson & Johnson announced that it would phase out polyethylene microbeads from its personal care products, but it still has a ways to go: This survey of products containing microbeads taken this year includes plenty of Johnson & Johnson products.

Legislation is clearly the way to go, but in the meantime, you can shop more ethically using the Beat the Microbead app, available for most smartphones. This app lets you scan the barcode of a suspect product to see if it contains the little plastic perils. It’s not a ban, but it’s better than nothing.

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