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In case you missed it a few weeks back, the federal government made an unexpected announcement just days before the federal election campaign was announced: it intends to ban the use of microbead products in personal care products.

So how will it work? The government proposes publishing an Order to add microbeads to the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, SC 1999, c33 (“CEPA”). This will in effect allow the federal government to regulate, and eventually ban, the release of microbeads into the environment.

The government also plans to publish a notice of intent to develop regulations under CEPA preventing the manufacture, sale, import, and offer for sale of personal care products containing microbeads.

Microbeads are currently used in a vast range of personal care products—from face washes to toothpaste to exfoliants. The problem is that they are so tiny that when they are washed down the drain, they slip through water filtration systems and end up in waterways. There they are often mistaken for food and consumed by fish and other aquatic organisms. They also have a tendency to absorb and concentrate pollutants, such as pesticides. This means that they can act as a vehicle for the introduction and accumulation of these toxic substances into the food system when they are consumed by fish, which are in turn caught and consumed by humans, potentially affecting human health.

There is some indication that microbeads are a particular problem in the Great Lakes, inspiring some US states in the region to pass bans, beginning with Illinois in June 2014. Several additional states have since passed bans or have such legislation pending. While there is no federal-level ban in the US, and there are some concerns as to the efficacy of state bans that have been enacted or are proposed, momentum has been building south of the border towards banning microbeads, making the announcement of the Canadian initiative both timely and important.

The federal response does not, unfortunately, address the overarching issue of microplastics—which are small particles of plastic often found in waterways and of which microbeads are a subset. Microplastics, the by-products of plastic that has partially broken down or has become dislodged from clothing in the wash or used in industrial processes, are increasingly identified as an overlooked, but equally vexing issue for Canadian waterways (and in the Great Lakes in particular).

Nevertheless, the announcement is certainly welcome news. Hopefully it will inspire product manufacturers to proactively find ways to eliminate microbeads from their products. Some producers, such as Colgate-Palmolive, have already done so and others, such as Proctor & Gamble, have made commitments to phase them out.

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