As You Sow Seeks Transparency on Plastic Pellet Spills from Large Petrochemical Producers including Chevron, Dow, and Exxon

Plastic Pollution Coalition member As You Sow is challenging three of the world’s largest plastic resins manufacturers to disclose actions taken to prevent and remediate spills of pre-production plastic pellets into waterways during production or transport. Plastic pellets are estimated to be the second largest direct source of microplastic pollution to the ocean by weight.

After attempts to engage the companies in dialogue were unsuccessful, shareholder proposals were filed recently with Chevron, DowDupont, ExxonMobil, and Phillips 66, which own large petrochemical operations that produce plastics. The proposals ask for annual reports disclosing spills and measures taken to prevent and clean up any spills.

Most plastic products originate from plastic pellets, also known as pre-production pellets, or nurdles. Billions of plastic pellets are swept into waterways annually, adding to harmful levels of plastic pollution in the environment.

The chemical operations divisions of the four companies are members of Operation Clean Sweep, an industry initiative with a stated goal of reducing pellet spills through adoption of best practices to prevent spills, but this initiative has provided no public reporting in more than 25 years of existence.

“The industry’s effort to deal with pellet spills, Operation Clean Sweep, provides no transparency on the scope and nature of spills or efforts made to clean up,” said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of As You Sow. “Given what we know about the alarming rates of plastic leakage into oceans, companies can no longer hide behind vague pledges of best practices. They need to provide prompt and detailed disclosure about specific actions taken to prevent spills, and when spills occur, information on spill size, and actions taken to clean up.”

Pellets are similar in size and shape to fish eggs and are often mistaken by marine animals for food. Plastic pellets can absorb toxins such as dioxins from water and transfer them to the marine food web and potentially to human diets, increasing the risk of adverse effects to wildlife and humans.

Eight million tons of plastic leak into oceans annually, impacting 260 species, causing fatalities from ingestion, entanglement, suffocation, and drowning.  Plastic does an estimated $13 billion in damage to marine ecosystems annually. If no action is taken, oceans are expected to contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

One recent study estimated that up to 53 billion pellets may be spilled annually in the United Kingdom alone. Another study concluded that continuous leakage from one major industry production complex in Sweden releases up to 36 million plastic pellets annually. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined at least four companies in the last two years for spilling pellets into waterways in Southern California.

DowDupont and its subsidiaries reported 120 material spills in 2016 and 2017, but company information lacks specificity as to which may have involved pellets, whether spills occurred on land or waterways, and the extent to which spilled materials were recovered. In 2017, joint venture SCG-Dow disclosed four high-severity spills that may have released up to 11,000 pounds of plastic powder or granules. No information was provided as to what extent of that spill was recovered and what action was taken to prevent similar spills in the future.

For more information on As You Sow’s work on ocean plastics, click here.

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By Emily DiFrisco

The images are shimmering and metallic—like minerals found in nature. But the subject of Erica DiGiovanni’s photographs is actually synthetic: plastic microbeads from common personal care products like face washes and toothpaste.

To create her installation Plastic Universe, DiGiovanni bought drug store face washes and strained the plastic beads with boiling water and a coffee filter. She photographed the plastic pieces using a microscope, making their tiny details visible to the human eye.

DiGiovanni chose to focus on plastic microbeads after learning about the problem of plastic pollution as a scuba diver. She has seen items like a plastic construction worker’s hat in the water, but she’s learned that it is the smallest pieces of plastic that pose the biggest threat to the ocean and marine life. 

The problem of plastic microbeads is complex: the beads make the journey from tube to drain to waste water treatment center, where they are too small to be filtered out. Microbeads end up in waterways and oceans, where they absorb toxic chemicals. The polluted particles are then eaten by fish and other sea animals.

Growing awareness and international campaigns have pushed the cosmetics industry to begin phasing out these harmful products, and countries such as the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Taiwan have initiated microbead bans, but many countries still prefer to rely on voluntary commitments from the cosmetics industry. 

DiGiovanni says the time is now to stop polluting the ocean. “I never thought I would be spreading awareness on environmental issues; I always thought that it was someone else’s problem to fix,” she explains. “But that all changed after I started scuba diving because I completely fell in love with the ocean and wanted to do something to help protect it from human destruction.”

She chose to focus on plastics because it’s something we can change in our lifetimes. “I encourage people to make more conscious choices,” says DiGiovanni. “Our daily choices have power in them. Choose food with less packaging and personal care products without microbeads. We each have voices we can use for change.”

For her part, DiGiovanni will continue to raise awareness about microbeads, plastic pollution, and the health of our oceans. The subject of her next photography project? Found plastics and washed ashore microplastics.

For more information about Plastic Universe, contact the artist.

Learn more about how to choose products without plastic microbeads.

Plastic ingredients are applied in a variety of leave-on and rinse-off formulations such as: deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, lipstick, hair colouring, shaving cream, sunscreen, insect repellent, anti-wrinkle creams, moisturizers, hair spray, facial masks, baby care products, eye shadow, mascara etc.* 

“Are we polluting the environment through our personal care?”

Whether we call them microplastics, microspheres, nanospheres or plastic particulates, a 2015 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says we most certainly are. 

That’s why the international Beat the Microbead campaign has launched a new initiative: ‘Look for the Zero,’ which asks consumers to only buy 100 percent microplastic-free personal care products.

The objective of the campaign is to prevent plastic microbeads in personal care products from ending up in the sea. A Beat the Microbead app makes it easy to check whether a product contains plastic.

“Recent research shows that many more types of plastics are added to personal care products than previously thought,” according to Janna Selier, Beat the Microbead coordinator for the Plastic Soup Foundation, its parent organization based in Amsterdam. “It also shows that some plastic microbeads are replaced with bio-based microbeads which do not break down in water. On top of this, increase in the use of nanoplastics in cosmetics is a worrying development,” Selier cautions.

That is why the burden of proof has to be on the manufacturers of personal care products. “We are asking producers to declare their personal care products free of microplastics. This claim must be checked in each country.”

Plastic-free products will be included in the new Zero category of the Beat the Microbead website and app. The brands that do not use microplastics may carry the ‘Zero Plastic Inside’ logo. “In one glance, this logo makes it clear for consumers that a product is guaranteed 100 percent free of microplastics.”

There will be a ‘ZERO’ list added to the ‘RED’, ‘ORANGE’ and ‘GREEN’ lists on the Beat the Microbead website and app. The products on the ‘ZERO’ list are personal care products whose contents are 100 percent microplastic free. Producers themselves declare that their products are plastic free and they send the list of ingredients for checking. 

The Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza is the first to carry the Zero logo on all the personal care products of their house-brand Botanique.  

The Beat the Microbead coalition, which began in 2012, now comprises 79 NGOs in 35 countries. Find out more about the “Look for the Zero’ campaign on their website.

Plastic in Cosmetics

Read the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2015 report*

UPDATE Dec. 18, 2015: The Senate votes unanimously to pass H.R. 1321. Bill will go to President Obama for signature. Stay tuned — the Microbead-Free Waters Act.

By Elizabeth Glazner

Though smaller than a grain of sand, microbeads constitute a significant amount of pollution in our waterways. Also known as polyethylene microspheres, these tiny pieces of plastic are the colored dots in toothpaste and face wash designed to make a product look like it will polish your teeth or skin.

Fortunately, they may soon be banned in the US. In November, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was approved unanimously by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill will now be considered by the full House of Representatives, where it has early bipartisan support. It is currently sponsored by 31 Democrats and five Republicans.

STAY UPDATED on H.R. 1321, the Microbead-Free Waters Act

Reports about the harms associated with microbead pollution are quickly mounting. We know, for example, that polyethylene microspheres are found in disturbing concentrations in our oceans and our freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams. They wash down the drains in our sinks and through water treatment systems because they are too small to be caught in filters.

Once in our waterways, microbeads are small enough to be ingested by the smallest links in our food chain — microscopic plankton. In aquatic environments, these plastic particles can also attract and concentrate other contaminants, such as PCBs, DDT, and PBDE, which can then be eaten by larger organisms like fish, and potentially ingested by the humans that consume them. They have become so ubiquitous they are now being detected in our table salt.

Read more at Earth Island Journal.

Elizabeth Glazner is editorial director.

Photo: MPCA

Join the International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics

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.

Supporters of a bill to ban the sale of products that contain plastic microbeads finally corralled enough votes in the California State Senate today to push it through to law. The ban is on course to be implemented by 2020.

The 24-14 vote is a big victory for the movement to take plastics out of the environment. Plastic Pollution Coalition and the environmental law firm Greenfire have been working for months to go after plastic manufacturers in California—as many as 3,000— that are in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, because they flout storm water permitting requirements. Many of these manufacturers are allowing pre-production microbeads and plastic byproducts to end up in waterways.

Although any state water board could invoke the federal Clean Water Act to regulate pre-production plastic pollution, so far California is the only state to do so. It’s also the only state with a law specifically targeting pre-production plastic, but environmentalists hope that California will provide a model for others.

Source: “It’s taken seven years, but California is finally cleaning up microbead pollution,” Amy Westervelt, The Guardian March 17, 2015

Microbeads are tiny polyethylene microspheres commonly found in thousands of personal care products, such as facial scrubs and toothpastes. They’re so small, they can’t be captured in water filtration systems, so they literally flow from your face out to the ocean. Research is unequivocal that these tiny plastics are being ingested by all strata of sea life.

Opponents of the bill argued it was too restrictive to industry, and the research and implementation to replace microbeads would be too costly.

The microbeads ban was amended after a state Senate vote yesterday failed to pass. The measure was originally introduced in February 2015 by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica.  It will actually have to go back to the state Assembly for a re-vote next week. Then it heads to Gov. Jerry Brown for signature. The exact language of the bill that won approval is being updated on the California legislation website and can be accessed here.