This week, the California legislature will vote on AB-888, a bill that could prohibit the sale of products containing plastic microbeads. This is the second microbead ban to make its way through the state legislature after the first bill, AB-1699, died in the state senate last year.
What Are Plastic Microbeads?
Often used as abrasives and bulking agents in health and beauty products, microbeads easily wash down residential drains and pass right through the filters in wastewater treatment plants. Once in the ocean, the plastic beads can be mistaken for food by marine life – but that’s only part of the problem. Plastic is non-biodegradable, and so these particles do not dissolve but simply accumulate in the ocean year after year. Researchers at Plymouth University have shown that nearly 100,000 microbeads (each less than a millimeter in diameter) can be released in a single application of a facial scrub. And though non-toxic themselves, plastic particles are very good at absorbing toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), nonylphenol, phenathrene and Triclosan. Fish eat that stuff, and we eat those fish.
Microbeads have also been shown to make up a significant portion of the plastic soup that is overtaking our oceans, lakes and streams. In 2012, the 5 Gyres Institute and SUNY Fredonia skimmed the Great Lakes and discovered it was packed with an average of 43,000 plastic particles per square kilometer; and last year microbeads were found in almost every sediment sample taken from 10 different locations along the St. Lawrence River.
The Road to a Plastic Microbead Ban
Attorney Lisa Kaas Boyle is the former Legal Policy Director for 5 Gyres and was instrumental in developing model legislation for the California microbead ban. In an interview with Planet Experts, she explained how the discovery of microbeads in the Great Lakes marked a turning point in the fight against plastic pollution.
“Usually when you’re out there in the water you have no idea how to trace the source of plastic pollution back,” said Boyle. “What [5 Gyres co-founder and Director of Research] Marcus Eriksen was able to find while he was out in the Great Lakes was something new. These perfectly uniform little pellets were even smaller than nurdles [pre-production plastic pellets]. So he was like, ‘What the heck are these?’ And he was able to match them exactly to exfoliants used in really common products. That was a ‘Wow’ moment in our battle because we could point a finger. And what was great was the people we pointed at didn’t deny it. They couldn’t.”
But 5 Gyres is not a watchdog organization. As co-founder Anna Cummins explained to Planet Experts last summer, there was no way their small organization could force major companies to phase out microbead-containing products (though L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble did agree to do so voluntarily following a passionate grassroots campaign), so they opted to go the legal route.
Environmental attorney Rachel Doughty was contacted to craft the prototype legislation for what would eventually become AB-1699. Doughty, like Boyle, lauded Illinois for crafting the first statewide microbead ban (which arose largely in response to the appalling evidence of plastic pollution in the nearby Great Lakes), but both were equally critical of its limited scope. “Sadly,” said Boyle, “the Illinois legislation has a loophole you can drive through for bio-plastic, which can be the exact same thing. Bio-plastics don’t degrade in water.”
In crafting California’s version of a microbead ban, Doughty wanted to ensure it didn’t follow Illinois’ flawed example. She was also eager to fill the current gap that exists in California’s environmental laws.
“California has what’s called the ‘nurdle law’ that prohibits pre-production plastics from being discharged to water ways,” explained Doughty. “The irony here is that without this law you wouldn’t be able – if you were a manufacturer – to store nurdles where they might end up in stormwater, but you can design a product that is designed to be flushed down the drain and ends up in water treatment plants. So there was a gap in our environmental laws protecting water quality, and we were trying to close that gap.”
The California ban includes bio-plastics in its list of prohibited alternatives, though it does not go so far as Connecticut’s progressive law that requires products to be reviewed by its Academy of Sciences prior to hitting retail shelves.
Lisa Boyle brought the microbead issue to California State Assemblyman and former Mayor of Santa Monica Richard Bloom, who has since become its staunchest political advocate. “He’s been on the Coastal Commission,” said Boyle. “This is a guy who really knows his plastic pollution stuff. I met him at an ocean event and started talking about it and he was like, ‘Wow! I want to do something about this!’”
In 2014, AB-1699 passed the California State Assembly by a 45-10 vote. “Microbeads are a significant part of the debris accumulating in the Pacific Ocean and are also found at alarming levels in our local waterways,” said Assemblyman Bloom. “We have no choice but to eliminate this pollution at the source. Waiting will only compound the problem and the price of cleaning up.” Unfortunately, after heading to the State Senate, the bill then fell just one vote short of becoming law.
Second Time’s the Charm?
This year, Lisa Boyle and others are hopeful that AB-888 will succeed where its predecessor failed, largely due to the #BanTheBead awareness campaign spread by 5 Gyres and others.
— 5 Gyres (@5gyres) September 3, 2015
“This year we have extremely high hopes,” said Boyle.
Anna Cummins told Planet Experts that she and 5 Gyres had little idea they could spark a national movement to ban microbeads when they were trawling the Great Lakes in 2012. “The microbeads issue has been a watershed example of the power of grassroots activism, and the importance of first hand, scientific research to back up our collective campaigns,” she said.
“Three years later, there are bills in place across the country, major corporations are working to change the design of their products and dozens of NGOs are working together to engage their communities in action. This is the sort of collaboration that gives me hope for the future!”
Now all that’s left is to await California’s decision. If microbeads are successfully banned in the country’s most populated state, it would significantly impact the health and cosmetics industry, as well as the way consumers think about the products in their bathrooms.
It will also go a long way towards stopping a major source of plastic pollution in North America. In December, 5 Gyres released a landmark paper that showed some 5.25 trillion plastic particles are currently floating in the ocean, with a collective weight of about 269,000 tons. That’s a big mess. Banning the bead is a small but serious step in cleaning it up.