Viewpoints: State should ban plastic microbeads in cosmetics

As an environmental advocate who has worked to reduce plastic pollution in the marine environment, I was shocked when I realized that my son’s anti-acne face scrub contained micro-plastic beads that get washed down the drain and enter the ocean. That’s because typical sewage treatment relies on settling of solids, but microbeads float.

Recent research shows that micro-plastics are increasingly filling inland and ocean waters and may be poisoning marine life and commercial seafood. A recent study of the Great Lakes by SUNY Fredonia and the 5 Gyres Institute found an average of 43,000 micro-plastics per square mile in Lake Erie. In a 2005 study I participated in with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, our samples of the Los Angeles River collected 90,500 micro-plastic particles in a 24-hour period, an average of 819 pieces per cubic meter.

Many studies show that plastic debris carries organic pollutants – such as polychlorinated biphenols, DDT, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and flame retardants – found in the oceans. Plastics can accumulate pollutants up to one million times the concentrations present in seawater. Marine species ingest this toxic plastic debris, including fish commonly purchased at the seafood counter. So micro-plastics may be transferring toxins to seafood that people eat.

A tube of face wash can contain as many as 330,000 plastic microbeads; there are more than 1,100 personal care products on the market that use them. In the last two decades, the industry has moved away from using more natural materials as exfoliants, such as almond shells and cocoa beans. In response to recent discoveries about the increasing presence of micro-plastics in the ocean, a number of product manufacturers are going back to the more natural exfoliants.

Assemblyman Richard Bloom has introduced legislation, Assembly Bill 1699, that would ban the use of plastic microbeads in personal care products. We need a legal mandate because not all companies are taking action voluntarily.

In fact, the personal care products industry is arguing for the right to pollute our waterways with these plastics. They oppose the measure, which the Assembly approved in May, and have been working a typical “greenwashing” angle to continue the use of plastics by asking for an exemption in the bill for biodegradable plastics.

Environmental advocates and Bloom aren’t buying it, since biodegradable plastics don’t degrade in the marine environment. In fact, there isn’t even a standard available for certifying a plastic as marine degradable, so there is no testing or certification for a plastic that comes with marine degradability claims.

Kudos should go to companies such as Unilever that have pledged to eliminate plastic microbeads from their products. There are 21 companies that have made similar promises. We need action now by the Legislature to ensure that the entire industry is forced to do the same.