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Anna Cummins

5 Gyres co-founder, Anna Cummins

This week, Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. introduced a bill to ban the sale and distribution of products containing plastic microbeads. This is the latest and biggest development in a nationwide push to eliminate the plastic particles that are seeping into the planet’s rivers, lakes and oceans.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2014 would not exist without the dedicated research of the 5 Gyres Institute and SUNY Fredonia, whose article on microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes kickstarted a national awareness campaign.

After the microbead bill was announced, we contacted 5 Gyres’ co-founder and Executive Director, Anna Cummins, and she explained the origins of the bill and its prospects for the future.

Ms. Cummins has been involved in environmental non-profits for over a decade, working in marine conservation, coastal watershed management, sustainability education and high school ecology instruction. In 2001, she received a fellowship from the Sustainable Communities Leadership Program to coordinate bilingual outreach and community relations for the non-profit Save Our Shores. She joined the Algalita Marine Research Foundation as an education advisor in 2007 and was elected a National Fellow of the Explorers Club in 2010. Cummins received her undergraduate in History from Stanford University and her Masters in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute for International Studies.

Planet Experts: Let’s go into the origins of the microbead ban. In 2012, 5 Gyres trawled the Great Lakes and discovered a huge concentration of microplastic pollution.

Microbead ScrubAnna Cummins: There was an average of 43,000 plastic particles per square kilometer with a couple of samples that were huge outliers. A few samples in Lake Erie were much higher. It was those samples that we collected, and looking in the microscope we determined that they were likely coming from microbeads. They resembled in size, shape, color and composition the same kind of plastics that you would find in these personal care products. … In 2013 we returned to the Great Lakes, also in partnership with SUNY Fredonia, to do more research.

PE: How did that research lead to the bill that was introduced this week?

AC: In terms of our role, we had this finding, the scientific finding, and we took it to the big companies, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and we engaged our community in a grass roots campaign – our letter writing campaign to Johnson & Johnson. [Johnson & Johnson] agreed to a voluntary phase out, which then encouraged the other companies to follow suit – Procter & Gamble, L’Oreal the Body Shop.

MicrobeadsBut being a small organization, we decided that we should go the legislative route. We don’t have the bandwidth to be a watchdog organization and make sure these companies are complying and then go to additional brands and try to do the same thing.

So we contacted an attorney in San Francisco who worked with [5 Gyres co-founder] Marcus Eriksen and one of our board members who is also an attorney to draft model legislation. We also have an article in the Tulane Law Journal that presents this model legislation. Then we worked with the state attorney general’s office in New York to get New York to be the first state to introduce this bill, followed by California and then the other states. From there we weren’t directly involved with having this be introduced on a federal level but it was a ripple effect coming from our work in these other states and the fact that it’s catching on so quickly.

PE: And what about the federal bill itself? Does this bill have everything it needs or can it be improved?

AC: It’s a very basic bill. In order just to get it through – introduced – at the federal level it’s extremely basic and a lot of the negotiating and the definitions will come later.

PE: Was the strategy always to take this to the federal level?

AC: We were able to be the catalyst to do the science, to publish the findings, to engage our community and grassroots campaign and actually get this bill introduced in two of the big states, in California and New York, and our strategy there was if we can get the big states on the coasts to actually pass this bill then effectively these companies are going to have to comply because it makes distribution a nightmare if not impossible to figure out. Basically, if you get some of the key states to comply then the big brands are going to have to change their infrastructure.

Microbeads on PennyBut to see it introduced at the federal level, a national bill was just absolutely thrilling to us. The proof will be in the fine print and the details – the one concern that we have is that we don’t want biodegradable plastics, compostable plastics, degradable plastics to be acceptable as an alternative. If that loophole gets inserted, which the personal care council is trying very hard to add, then we, 5 Gyres along with our NGO coalition and other partners, will unanimously oppose it.

To learn more about microbeads, marine pollution and what you can do to help, visit 5gyres.org.

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