The Golden State Gilds Its Microbead Ban

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed groundbreaking legislation to ban micro-plastic particle abrasives, commonly referred to as “microbeads,” from being used in products such as facial scrubs, soaps, and toothpaste. Assembly Bill 888, introduced in February by Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), sets up the strongest protections in the country against the use of these unnecessary and toxic micro-plastic beads.

AB 888 may be a comprehensive solution to the growing problem of microbead pollution, though it does not phase them out until 2020. Said Bloom in a statement, “While other states have passed similar regulations, AB 888 was carefully crafted to avoid any loopholes that would allow for use of potentially harmful substitutes. This legislation ensures that personal care products will be formulated with environmentally-safe alternatives to protect our waterways and oceans.” 

RELATED: It’s Taken Years, But California is Finally Cleaning Up Microbead Pollution

A recent study by the San Francisco Estuary Institute found a staggering amount of micro-plastic pollution in the San Francisco Bay, which is contaminated in greater concentrations than any other U.S. body of water, with at least 3.9 million pieces entering the bay every day. Microbeads have also been found in the open ocean and marine debris piles, in rivers like the Los Angeles River, and in the Great Lakes. 

In a post, “4 Lessons Learned from Passing Microbead Legistlation,” 5 Gyres Institute reported that California environmental groups are using the tactic of “trading exemptions for loopholes” to make it easier for companies to adjust to the regulation. Over-the-counter drug formulations are more complicated and highly regulated, whereas personal care product manufacturers can easily swap natural substitutes, like apricot shells, for polyethylene and polypropylene microspheres. 

“Nevertheless,” the report states, “this bill (will) have a huge ameliorative effect on the marine environment because it bans all microbeads (with no loopholes) in personal care products, which dwarf over-the-counter drugs by volume.”

Microbeads have emerged as a prevalent form of pollution in our waterways and marine environment, contributing approximately 38 tons of plastic annually. While tiny, the size of microbeads is actually the biggest problem. Plastic microbeads used as exfoliants go down the drain. They are generally not recoverable through ordinary wastewater treatment, and thereby get discharged into the environment.  As a result, these plastic microbeads are found in all oceanic gyres, bays, gulfs and seas worldwide, as well as inland waterways. A single product can contain as much as 350,000 beads.

Microbeads can have negative health effects on marine life and humans. Most microbeads are not biodegradable and can contain various toxins such as DDT, PCBs (flame retardants), and other industrial chemicals. These toxins can be absorbed by marine life and mammals that ingest the beads, mistaking them for food. Because fish ingest these particles and absorb the toxins in their flesh, many in the scientific community worry about the impacts on the fish, crabs, and shellfish that humans eat. Plastic microbeads pose other direct threats to human health as well. Plastic microbeads used in toothpaste can get stuck in a person’s gums which then collect bacteria and can lead to periodontal diseases. 

Assembly Bill 888 Registered Sponsors

5 Gyres Institute, 7th Generation Advisors, Azul, Breast Cancer Fund, California Association of Sanitation Agencie, California Coastkeeper Alliance, California League of Conservation Voters, Californians Against Waste, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Center for Biological Diversity, Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, Central Marin Sanitation Agency, City of Palo Alto, City of San Francisco, Clean Water Action, Cleanups for Change, Community Environmental Council, Costa Mesa Sanitary District, Delta Diablo, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Environment California, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Environmental Working Group, Green Sangha, Heal the Bay, Health Care Without Harm, Hidden Resources, Las Virgenes–Triunfo Joint Powers Authority, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, Napa Recycling & Waste Services, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Plastic Soup Foundation, Ross Valley Sanitary District No. 1, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco Water Power Sewer, Save Our Shores, Sierra Club California, Surfrider Foundation, The Story of Stuff Project, Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation Authority, Wildcoast, World Society for the Protection of Animals

Top photo: 5 Gyres Institute; below, floating microbeads found in facial scrub, credit: Robert Simmons.

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