Beads galore
Microplastic beads found recently in the Great Lakes. 5 Gyres / YouTube

Illinois has become the first state to ban microbeads, the small plastic bits often found in soaps and many different types of cosmetic products. The law, signed this week by Governor Pat Quinn, bans the manufacturing use of these synthetic beads by the end of 2018, and the sale of such items by the end of 2019 in the state.

“I’m proud that Illinois is… taking the first step away from plastic microbeads toward natural exfoliants, and I’m optimistic that we’ve started a nationwide movement to protect not just the Great Lakes, but other bodies of water with high concentrations of microbeads,” said State Senator Heather Steans in a statement.

It’s well established that these synthetic microbeads accumulate in waterways including lakes and oceans, as they are small enough to make their way through water treatment facilities. Recent work has found 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer in Lake Ontario, for example. And they can be taken up by all a manner of animals, which can be harmful to their health. These plastic bits soak up a variety of pollutants, and there is a concern that when fish and other animals eat these plastic bits, they may transfer these chemicals up the food chain to humans and wildlife. (Microplastics can soak up and transport phenanthrene, for example, an ocean pollutant.)

Why use plastic beads anyway? The answer, in part: They are cheap, and people buy into them. There are many natural exfoliants that can be used, though, like sand, pumice, walnut shells, bits of kelp… or you could just use a wash cloth.