The push is on in Washington state to ban synthetic plastic microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic sometimes used in face washes and bath products as an exfoliant.
But in a twist, an environmental group working to curb plastic pollution is critical of the plan, while manufacturers of microbead-laden beauty products are pushing it.
The small plastic beads, commonly used in facial scrubs and body washes, are known to pollute waterways and can end up in the bellies of fish and other marine animals, according to the state Department of Ecology.
A proposal in the Legislature would phase out products containing the synthetic microbeads by 2020. House Bill 1378 will receive a public hearing at 8 a.m. Thursday (Jan. 29) before the House Environment Committee.
As written, though, the legislation would only ban microbeads that are made out of plastic that isn’t biodegradable, which one environmental group said wouldn’t solve the problem.
The biodegradable plastics now on the market don’t break down in cold environments such as the ocean, according to 5 Gyres, a nonprofit working to reduce plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Instead, the currently available biodegradable plastics need to be composted in a high-heat industrial compost facility, said Anna Cummins, executive director of the group.
5 Gyres has been critical of a similar law passed in Illinois last year that also targets only non-biodegradable plastic microbeads.
“The whole point is to prevent these toxic plastic pellets from entering our oceans,” Cummins said. “Replacing plastic microbeads with compostable plastic microbeads would be a huge loss for the environment.”
Yet the Personal Care Products Council, a national trade group representing about 600 companies, is supporting the legislation. So is the state Department of Ecology.
Karin Ross, director of government affairs for the Personal Care Products Council, said there aren’t many scientific studies yet showing that microbeads have become a large pollution problem, but manufacturers want to get ahead of the issue. She said manufacturers of personal care products are already switching voluntarily to alternatives to plastic microbeads, which she said may include natural exfoliants such as ground seeds.
“The industry has taken the worries about them possibly ending up in waterways very seriously,” Ross said.
Ross made no mention of biodegradable plastics being used as an alternative, but said she couldn’t speak to all the products in development by companies represented by her organization.
The proposal the House committee will hear Thursday would phase out products containing non-biodegradable plastic microbeads over a five-year period. Under the bill, it would be illegal for anyone in Washington to manufacture or knowingly sell any products containing synthetic microbeads starting in January 2020.
Violators could be fined between $1,000 and $10,000.
Microbeads are defined in the legislation as plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in diameter that are used for exfoliation.
An identical bill has been introduced in the Senate, and both bills have a mix of Republican and Democratic supporters.
State Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, said her intention in sponsoring the House version of the legislation is to stop microbead pollution in waterways.
She said Wednesday that she hadn’t heard of any opposition to the bill until a reporter told her of 5 Gyres’ concerns. She said she is open to amending the the bill to apply to all products with plastic microbeads, regardless of whether they are made of biodegradable or non-biodegradable plastic.
McBride said the plastic microbeads are particularly problematic because they are often too small to be caught by water filtration systems.
She said that she’s worried about plastic microbeads contaminating the state’s food supply and damaging aquatic ecosystems.
“They’re not meant to be ingested,” McBride said. “They work at exfoliation — they don’t work as food for fish.”