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New York State is looking to become the first in the nation to outlaw microbeads, those tiny polyethylene or polypropylene pieces that critics allege cause big pollution problems in rivers and lakes and oceans.
The aptly named proposed Microbead-Free Waters Act is aimed squarely at the round little beads that have found their way into a variety of beauty and cosmetic products over the years.
A problem, critics say, is that those beads that make us feel good by scrubbing away the day's dirt, end up being washed down the drain. And, from there, it's only a matter of time before they become pollution as they are too small to be captured at water treatment plants.
Some consumer products companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, already have agreed to remove the beads from their offerings thanks to a push by environmental group 5 Gyres Institute.
But Stiv Wilson, policy director at 5 Gyres, said his group ultimately realized a legislative solution would bring about change more rapidly than dealing with individual firms and products that contain these microbeads.
"I didn't want to play Whac-A-Mole. There's just so many different products out there and this is going to be a lot more efficient way to get these beads out of our environment," he said.
New York State was eager to be the first to propose the legislation, but several more states are in line to introduce similar legislation this year and next. A proposal could come as early as Thursday in California, Wilson said.
"I think you are going to see a lot of dominoes falling not just nationally, but internationally as well. We've got a pretty serious campaign lined up to attack this problem," he said.
The proposed law, unveiled by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and state Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, wants to "prohibit the production, manufacture, distribution and sale in New York of any beauty product, cosmetic or other personal care product containing plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size," the attorney general's office said.
That's about the size of a pea.
Microbeads can be found in products such as facial scrubs, soaps, shampoo and toothpaste, the attorney general said. They have replaced natural abrasive materials such as ground walnut shells and sea salt.
"When people learn more about this issue, they will be unwilling to sacrifice water quality just to continue to use products with plastic microbeads," said Sweeney, chairman of the State Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, in a statement.
"I never met anyone who has wanted plastic on their face or in their fish," he said.
A couple of Dutch non-government organizations are fighting against the tiny plastic pieces through their Beat the Microbead campaign. They launched an app in 2012 to help consumers identify products using the material. The United Nations Environment Program joined in last year to expand the app for international use beyond the Netherlands.
Wilson's 5 Gyres previously conducted research that found 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer in two different Lake Erie water samples.
A typical tube of facial cleanser can contain 350,000 microbeads, he said. "We're releasing a massive amount of plastic into the environment. Trillions and trillions of these beads."
Along with the direct release of the small plastic beads, 5 Gyres is concerned that they also attract and concentrate pollutants in the water. This, the group claims, can cause problems when fish eat the beads and see their tissue absorb the pollutants. "We think this becomes a human health concern," he said.
"We're definitely not an anti-plastics group. We're a group that doesn't want to see this stuff escaping into the environment," Wilson said.