Sustainability Column: Where Do Your Microbeads Go?

Miniscule plastic microbeads from consumer hygiene products such as toothpastes, body scrubs and face washes cannot be filtered out of the water during sewage treatment. Enough plastic microbeads enter our water each day to cover eight football fields. Once in the water, the microbeads attract toxins such as dioxins and volatile organic chemicals from pesticides and industrial pollution. The toxins are absorbed through the tissue of species that ingest the plastics, then are biomagnified across the food web. At the top trophic level, humans will be exposed to the highest concentrations of toxins.

Earlier in 2014, Illinois was the first state to ban the use of microbeads in personal care products due to their extensive damage to our skin and the environment, followed by Colorado, Indiana, Maine, Maryland and New Jersey. Although these early legislations have jumpstarted the proposal of bans in other states, they have actually hindered the successful passing of bills in some assemblies. 

Furthermore, these early bans include a loophole that exempts corn-based plastic microbeads because they are biodegradable. However, corn-based products can only degrade at very high temperatures after a long period of time. Thus, these bans are allowing companies to market their products as “green” and environmentally friendly, even though the product is harmful. 

Fortunately, California passed a law in October that should set a nation-wide standard for plastic microbead production. Governor Jerry Brown approved Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom’s measure that will ban exfoliating microbeads in personal care products as of January 1, 2020. The passage of this law in California is a step forward because when the state bans something, it creates change across the consumer products industry. It is easier for California corporations to remove the beads instead of designing a separate product to be sold only where bans are in place. This specific ban also does not include the loophole, setting an example for states that are in the process of passing legislation.

Michigan and New York, two of the Great Lakes states, are in the process of passing their own bans. In Michigan, the passage of the ban is struggling to stray from the loophole precedent set by the earlier states. The Michigan Chemistry Council currently backs it, but some lawmakers and environmental groups are fighting for more stringency. 

New York has also been having issues passing legislation. In 2014, the NYS Assembly voted 133-1 to ban microbeads in products, but it never made its way to the State Senate. The next year, the Assembly overwhelmingly voted 139-0 in favor of the ban, but again it never reached the floor in the Senate. However, New York counties have begun taking the matter into their own hands. In August 2015, Erie County unanimously passed its own ban, with many other counties following suit. 

On the federal level, Democratic Representative Frank Pallone introduced a federal ban on microbeads in the U.S. House in March 2015. Although it stalled, it gathered 36 bipartisan cosponsors and drifted through a committee vote. More recently, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a companion bill in the Senate called the Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015 to ban the microbead nationally.