Sometimes Congress Can Do Good Things, Too

It’s hard to find feel-good stories coming out of Congress these days, but this is one of them:

Plastic microbeads used in soaps, body washes and other personal-care products will be phased out starting in 2017 under legislation approved by Congress and sent to the president.

The Senate approved the bill Friday following House approval last week. Lawmakers said the bill was needed to protect fish and wildlife that are ingesting the tiny beads after they are rinsed down the drain and discharged into lakes and rivers.

Microbeads are tiny plastic particles used as an abrasive in many personal-care and beauty products, such as facial scrubs, soaps and toothpastes. They do not dissolve and can persist in the environment for decades.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, called microbeads devastating to wildlife and human health. Once signed into law, the legislation phasing out microbeads should protect Lake Erie and other waterways now being polluted, Portman said.

It’s hard to believe this even needs saying, but it’s a perfect demonstration of why we need regulatory laws and a functional Congress. Plastic beads are a cheap way for cosmetic and skin care companies to create abrasives, but they have negative environmental impacts. It’s an important issue, but not big enough for consumers to make a significant enough market choice to stop companies from using them. An outright ban was needed.

In this case, the companies that use the beads didn’t have a big enough lobby to stop the legislation, and their potential more natural alternatives aren’t too terribly expensive. Many large states including California, Illinois and New Jersey had already passed bans. So, amazingly, despite the rancor and ideological division in Congress a good bill was able to emerge and land on the President’s desk.

There’s no good reason that we shouldn’t be able to do the same thing for climate change, healthcare and income inequality. It’s just a question of motivating enough voters to overwhelm the lobbies that prevent action, and the ideologues who enable them.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.