Ban on plastic microbeads in bath products moves forward

The state Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to ban exfoliating products that contain synthetic plastic microbeads, which are tiny scrubbing particles sometimes found in body washes, toothpastes and face washes.

The synthetic plastic pieces – generally used for exfoliation – are small enough to slip through drains and water treatment facilities and into waterways, where they pollute oceans and rivers and can end up in the bellies of fish.

Yet the microbead ban wouldn’t apply to beauty products that contain biodegradable plastic particles, which scientists and environmentalists have told lawmakers will still create a water pollution problem.

Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said members of the personal care products industry are supporting the bill, and are genuinely looking reduce plastic pollution.

Her legislation, Senate Bill 5609, would ban the manufacture of products containing synthetic plastic microbeads in Washington starting in 2018, and would ban the sale of microbead-laden products starting in 2020.

“Quite honestly, the industry is stepping up,” Bailey said. “Their intention is to remove these plastic microbeads from their products.”

But Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said he would like to see the legislation go further by clarifying that manufacturers can’t simply replace synthetic plastic microbeads with ones made of biodegradable plastic.

The bill defines microbeads as non-biodegradable plastic particles that measure less than 5 millimeters and are used to exfoliate or cleanse. It wouldn’t prohibit products that contain biodegradable plastic microbeads.

Two aquatic scientists told a House committee earlier this year that biodegradable plastics decompose only in high-heat settings, such as industrial or city compost facilities. They wouldn’t degrade in the cold temperatures of a river or ocean, they said.

Ranker proposed amending the bill to allow only products that contain natural exfoliants, which could include sugar, salt, ground fruit pits or oatmeal.

Ranker’s amendment failed on the Senate floor Wednesday, but he still voted in favor of the legislation.

He said he thinks the bill “makes progress in the right direction,” but said it still needs to go further.

“Why do I need little balls of plastic in my toothpaste?” Ranker said. “Until we ban the biodegradable ones, too, we haven’t gone far enough. We haven’t fixed the problem.”

The measure now heads to the state House for consideration.