By SABRINA CHEN
For The News-Letter
Last Thursday, California became the seventh state to ban plastic microbeads. The legislation, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is one of the strongest laws against microbeads used in exfoliators and other products. The new law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
Microbeads are tiny abrasives that are often suspended in facial cleansers and other skin care products. Manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble advertise these beads for their exfoliating power in face and body scrubs.
The beads are most commonly labeled as synthetic compounds, including polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon. A single container of facial cleaner can contain more than 300,000 microbeads.
The problem with microbeads is that when they’re washed off the skin, they flow from sinks and showers and eventually make their way into larger bodies of water. The beads become part of the growing mass of plastic flotsam that is negatively impacting ecosystems, wildlife and human health. Environmentalists argue that the billions of microbeads in our oceans have the same environmental effect as dumping ground-up water bottles into the water.
Environmentalists have estimated that microbeads, usually smaller than one millimeter in size, actually contribute to about 38 tons of plastic pollution in California every year.
“This legislation will eliminate the billions of plastic microbeads that are dumped into California’s precious freshwater and marine environments every day,” Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, told The Huffington Post. “Future generations will look back and wonder why these tiny pieces of plastic were ever even considered for use in products that are designed to be washed down the drain.”
Roberta Larson, executive director of the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, added that the beads can be particularly harmful to marine life and that the bill is a good policy.
Stiv Wilson, director of campaigns at the nonprofit group the Story of Stuff Project that advocates against waste), also expressed his support for the legislation.
“We’re obviously incredibly excited. We just passed a very simple ban on plastic microbeads without any loopholes,” Wilson told The New York Times.
Microbead bans are already in place in Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana and Maryland.
In contrast with bills prohibiting microbeads in other states, the California bill also bans the use of biodegradable microbeads. When the bill was first introduced, the consumer products industry argued that it was overly restrictive. The industry was especially upset that the bill did not even allow for environmentally-friendly alternatives to microbeads.
However, Lisa Powers, a spokeswoman for the Personal Care Products Council, recently stated in an email that the industry trade group has taken a neutral position on the bill.
An earlier version of the California bill only prohibited synthetic products. According to this bill, natural products such as ground walnut shells could be used as alternatives. When the bill failed in the state Senate, proponents of the bill agreed to ban natural alternatives. The legislation was then granted reconsideration and was passed in the Senate the next day.
New York was the first state to attempt implementation of a microbead ban in 2014 after Attorney General Eric
Schneiderman found that microbeads were systematically passing through wastewater treatment plants and entering bodies of water. It was estimated that roughly 19 tons of microbeads wash down the drains of New York’s buildings each year.
Though the bill failed to pass in the Republican-controlled Senate, Schneiderman is continuing to push for this legislation. Illinois was the first state to successfully pass a statewide microbead ban last year after environmentalists noticed the presence of the tiny particles in the Great Lakes.
Many people are also pushing for a federal ban of the microbeads. However, microbeads only make up a small part of the overall plastic pollution problem that is plaguing the planet. Debris from land-based activities in North America and Asia build up when humans dispose of vast amounts of plastic in areas such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This plastic can take centuries to break down.
Nevertheless, many environmentalists argue that the growing microbead bans in the U.S. is a good first step in addressing the plastic pollution problem.