The many cosmetic and personal hygiene products that contain tiny plastic pellets in their creams and gels appear to be on the verge of being banned in California, after the State Assembly voted 58 to 11 on Friday in favor of prohibiting them.
The environmental hazards posed by these microbeads are well documented, as they make their way through the drains of our showers and sinks and are deposited in waterways from New York to the Arctic. Instead of breaking down readily in the environment, the little bits of plastic become vehicles of toxins that are consumed by wildlife, putting various species at risk as well as the humans who eat them.
This push against microbeads comes a year after California passed a law that would phase out single-use plastic bags from stores. A similar bill banning microbeads was proposed in the state legislature that year as well, but it fell one vote short in the State Senate. If the Senate approves the new bill, products that use these minuscule bits of plastic will be entirely banned in California by 2020.
While similar bans have been proposed in several other states, California is aggressively outlawing all synthetic microbeads, even if distributors claim that they eventually dissolve.
"Toxic microbeads are accumulating in our rivers, lakes and oceans at alarmingly high levels," said Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom, who authored California's bill, in April. "We can and must act now."
Many hygienic products, such as face washes, have relied on the use of these specks to provide an exfoliating texture appropriate for scrubbing skin. The particles are typically made of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), and nylon.
Companies have even managed to stuff them into toothpaste, where they appear to serve little function beyond adding color, alarming dentists who warn that they can get lodged into gums and trigger bacterial infections.
'Microbeads are an important example of this wider problem of us designing products for one-time use that we're stuck with for our lifetimes, our children's lifetimes, our grand children's lifetimes. But it will kill us.'
Conservationists note that aquatic species mistake the beads for sediment, zooplankton, and other small organisms, and eat them as food. As the plastic freely enters the environment, it is increasingly likely that people will consume toxic fish. Research from 2012-2013 found that microbeads were having a major impact on the Great Lakes region, which holds 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water.
The 5 Gyres Institute, an organization that fights to eliminate plastic pollution, says that a single tube of facial cleanser can contain upwards of 300,000 microbeads. The group has been leading the fight for a ban in California along with Clean Water Action, Californians Against Waste, and the Story of Stuff Project.
Stiv Wilson, campaign director at the Story of Stuff Project and producer of the video "Let's Ban the Bead," began advocating for the California ban two and half years ago when he discovered the detrimental effects they were having on the Great Lakes.
"Thousands of species of animals eat microplastics," he told VICE News. "They absorb the toxins in the environment and concentrate them and those can transfer to the tissues of the animals after they ingest them."
Illinois became the first state to ban the sale and manufacture of microbeads in products last year, and similar laws have been considered in 18 other states, though some proposals make allowances for supposedly biodegradable microbeads. But conservation groups have argued that this provision is effectively a loophole, and that allowing even biodegradable beads to move through the environment is problematic.
John Hocevar, ocean campaign director at Greenpeace, told VICE News that even though some companies claim certain microbeads are biodegradable, they actually dissolve solely under certain conditions.
"One problem with some of the so-called biodegradable materials is that they only break down in higher temperatures than would usually be found in the environment," he said. "It's insane to design products that we're only going to use once out of materials that are going to remain in the environment forever and are toxic, and are going to enter the food chain."
Hocevar applauded the fact that California's bill has so far put forward a strong policy against microbeads.
"Having that prohibition across the board was a really powerful way to make sure that loophole doesn't get exploited," he said.
While states have taken the initiative to ban microbeads, major brands such as Johnson & Johnson, L'Oreal, and Colgate have also promised to rid their products of the stuff, though the adjustment could take several years to complete.
"We are phasing out and will eliminate the use of polyethylene microbeads in our personal care products by the end of 2017," says a statement on the Johnson & Johnson website. "We have stopped developing new products containing polyethylene microbeads and have been conducting environmental safety assessments of other alternatives."
Dr. Rachel Herschenfeld, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, told VICE News that there are plenty of natural alternatives to microbeads for exfoliating the skin, mentioning granules of sugar, salt, cocoa beans, and ground up seashells as examples. But companies have relied on plastic microbeads because they are cheap and plentiful.
"I have been warning my patients away from plastic microbeads for years," she said. "They are horrible. Initially it wasn't known that they were so harmful. It was definitely a case of unintended consequences."
Microbeads are only a small part of the major problem of plastic pollution, however. Massive amounts of plastic have gathered in ocean gyres, most famously in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. About 80 percent of this material, which degrades into tinier and tinier pieces but does not dissolve, derives from poor waste management in North America and Asia.
Hocevar says it is critical that our society shift away from using dangerous products that will negatively impact the environment in the long term.
"Microbeads are an important example of this wider problem of us designing products for one-time use that we're stuck with for our lifetimes, our children's lifetimes, our grand children's lifetimes," he remarked. "But it will kill us. We will drown and be poisoned in our own waste unless we get our act together."
Photo via Wikimedia Commons