Environment: California to ban plastic microbeads

This image captured by an electron microscope shows polyethylene microbeads widely used in shower gel. Photo courtesy Thompson/Bakir/Plymouth University.
This image captured by an electron microscope shows polyethylene microbeads widely used in shower gel. Photo courtesy Thompson/Bakir/Plymouth University.

New law could help spur companies to reduce use of harmful plastics in personal care products

Staff Report

Just a few weeks after scientists issued a strongly worded call for a ban on plastic microbeads, California did just that, as Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new that will phase out the use of microbeads in beauty products by 2020.

The tiny plastic particles, used in common products like facial scrubs and toothpaste, have become a pollution scourge, with millions of tons bypassing water treatment and filtration and ending up in rivers, lakes and the ocean.

Biologists say that nearly all marine organisms are at risk from ingesting the tiny plastic bits. Up to 90 percent of all seabirds have already eaten plastic, and scientists have also documented the potential harm to sediment-dwelling worms, as well as crabs. Basically, microplastic pollution is everywhere.The new California law is precedent-setting because it doesn’t have the loopholes of similar legislation in other states. For example, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, bans in Indiana and New Jersey simply allow companies to replace the microbeads with different plastics.

Since it applies to one of the leading consumer markets in the world, the ban in California will help influence manufacturing across the board.

“Our oceans are choking on plastic, so it’s great to see the California Legislature eliminating this pointless and harmful source of plastic pollution,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Once again, California has set the national standard for policies protecting our precious natural resources.”

The California law will prevent 38 tons of plastic from entering California’s waterways each year was supported by a coalition of leading environmental groups and clean water agencies.

Plastic microbeads concentrate toxins such as pesticides and flame retardants on their surface, which may then transfer to the tissue of fish that mistake microbeads for food. One tube of exfoliating facewash can contain more than 350,000 microbeads.

One recent study estimated that the UK adds up to 80 tons of plastic microbeads to the oceans each year, and documented that the microbeads have become ubiquitous in household and personal care products.

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