California Bans Microbeads, But The Plastic Pollution Will Keep Going Until 2020

California’s governor, Jerry Brown, has approved a law that will ban plastic microbeads, which measure between 50 and 500 micrometers in diameter, with some being no bigger than a grain of salt.  These microbeads are most commonly found in personal care products such as toothpaste, moisturizers, shampoos, facial scrubs, and soaps—with one bottle of these scrubs potentially containing up to 300,000 beads. An estimated 800 trillion of these microbeads get washed down the drain each day.

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The problem with these microbeads is that most are not biodegradable. According to scientist Marcus Eriksen, co-founder and director of research for 5 Gyres, a group that focuses on removing plastic from the world’s oceans, the beads soak up pesticides and chemicals like a sponge after they are washed down the drain.  Most wastewater treatment plant technology in incapable of removing microbeads from the waste stream because they are so small.  After passing unfiltered through the water purification stage, these microbeads enter lakes, rivers, and oceans, where they attract and absorb Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs and DDT from the marine environment.  The microbeads are then eaten by some fish and contribute to the plastic soup. Sometimes, certain fish are then eaten by humans, resulting in the microbeads ultimately ending up in our systems.

California isn’t the only state working on banning these plastic microbeads. Illinois was the first state to ban them, and Wisconsin and Indiana followed soon thereafter.  Michigan is also trying to ban the microbeads—they were found in high quantities in the Great Lakes bordering the state.  In addition, Connecticut, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, and New Jersey have all approved plans to phase out products containing microbeads.

Although California isn’t the first state to ban these dangerous additives, their law is the most stringent. Many other states with bans on microbeads have exemptions for biodegradable plastic particles.  But California’s law, AB 888, bans all products containing plastic microbeads from being sold in California. The bill was first proposed by Assemblyman Robert Bloom, who carefully crafted the law to ensure that there were no legal loopholes that would allow companies to sell equally harmful substitutes. Under Bloom's law, beauty products can only use environmentally safe alternatives to microbeads such as sea salt and oatmeal.

As expected, a few large manufacturers that use microbeads oppose the law, and they were instrumental in getting some amendments into AB 888.  For example, references to natural exfoliants were deleted from the law as well as a requirement that California’s Department of Toxic Substance Control evaluate alternatives to microbeads.  Even with the amendments, the most important parts of the law remained intact.  AB 888 effectively stops companies from using plastic in products that are washed down the drain. California’s law will go into effect on January 1, 2020. Until then, the plastic microbeads will continue polluting oceans, rivers, and lakes.

Meanwhile, L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Proctor & Gamble have announced they are phasing out the use of microbeads and are testing more environmentally friendly alternatives like sand and apricot seeds.

The state governments and environmental protection agencies are not the only ones protesting the use of microbeads.  Now that the negative effects of these microbeads are becoming increasingly well publicized, more and more consumers are refusing to buy products that contain them.  Recently, a petition to ban microbeads, which was initiated on the website www.care2.com and aimed at the FDA, has attracted more than 100,000 signatures. 

Plastic microbeads represent only a small portion of the 8-million-plus metric tons of plastics that make their way into the oceans, including nylon fishing nets, plastic bottles, and tiny fibers released from clothes during laundering.  With heightened awareness among consumers, combined with pressure on manufacturers and legislators, an increased number of states are banning microbeads.  These steps are evidence that welcome changes will be coming to a culture that prizes single-use, throwaway items and packaging. 

In early December, with unanimous votes from both the House and Senate in Washington, D.C., The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 passed into law, marking just one small step toward addressing the much broader problem of plastic debris in our waterways and ocean.

 

References:
NPR, May 28, 2014
www.5gyres.org
CRS Insights, July 20, 2015
“Ban on Microbeads Proves Easy to Pass Through Pipeline,” New York Times, December 23, 2015