Last week, the Unites States House of Representatives unanimously passed a bi-partisan bill to prohibit the use of plastic microbeads in personal care and hygiene products. Recognizing the urgent need to prevent more microbeads from entering and damaging the Great Lakes ecosystems, the Microbead Free Waters Act would ban these plastic pollutants beginning July 1st, 2017. The bill is now heading to the U.S. Senate.

Why is the usually bitterly divided U.S. Congress taking action on microbeads? And what is Canada doing?

Let’s look at the problem of microbeads first: Plastic pollution is threatening the source of drinking water for 40 million people in the Great Lakes region. In the Great Lakes alone, 80 per cent of litter is plastic and it is not just choking our shorelines but its making its way up the food chain. The most worrying are microplastics, a significant proportion of which are microbeads from consumer products. Researchers from the State University of New York estimate that Lake Ontario contains 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometres.

Microbeads and other tiny plastic particles (which result from the breakdown of larger plastic litter, including water bottles) may contain toxic substances such as phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA) that latch on, and can leach into the water and be consumed by fish and birds. This is particularly problematic as these substances threaten wildlife by affecting their reproductive and developmental health, and may end up bioaccumulating in organisms higher up in the food chain.

Let’s hope Canada also recognizes that getting rid of microbeads in consumer personal care products will be a significant first step in reducing plastic pollution and protecting the Great Lakes and public health.

It’s been several months since the Canadian federal government announced in July that it would consider banning microbeads. But because the government has decided to regulate them under the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), it might take a long time to get rid of microbeads. Ottawa has yet to release a risk management plan to restrict the use of these polluting microplastics.

The crux: for years, decisions on how to manage risks of harmful chemicals have been left lingering under the CMP process, which has been successful in many ways, but lags behind in a crucial area. While risk assessments have been completed for many toxic chemicals, risk management measures for many substances have yet to be finalized.

For example, triclosan was declared toxic to the environment under the CMP in 2012, yet no ban or restrictions have been announced to date.

Microbeads should not become another ‘stalled substance’ in the Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan process.

Microbeads can easily be eliminated from body and face washes and replaced with natural ingredients like almond and apricot shells. So let’s not make the mistake of swapping out microbeads with other pollutants including what are known as “biodegradable plastics.”

A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded that biodegradable plastics require certain conditions and high temperatures (e.g. 50 °C) in order to break down – conditions that are simply not present in the cold Great Lakes aquatic environment.

We need the newly elected federal government to take swift action on the growing microbeads problem. Join the call to overhaul the Chemicals Management Plan and ban microbeads once and for all by signing this petition.