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Momentum building for plastic microbead bans

By: Jim Johnson

May 9, 2014

Those who want to see the demise of plastic microbeads in personal-care products continue to gain traction.

Used in personal care products such as soap and facial scrubs, the beads provide exfoliation and have grown in popularity over the years.

But the New York State Assembly, last week, approved legislation by a 108-0 vote that would ban the tiny beads as a handful of other states also are in the process of considering outlawing the beads.

While legislative efforts are under way, certain consumer product companies and even a trade group representing consumer products now see a limited future for the beads.

Environmentalists are up in arms over the beads, alleging they cause pollution because they are so small that they are not captured by wastewater treatment plants before they are flushed into waterways.

Legislative action regarding microbeads is mostly taking place at this point in states bordering the Great Lakes — New York, Ohio and Illinois — but the California State Assembly also is considering a ban.

An environmental group called 5 Gyres Institute has been out in front of the push to ban microbeads in the United States and says a single container of facial cleanser can contain more than 300,000 beds.

Instead of using plastic microbeads, the group said safer alternatives include crushed walnut shells and salt, for example

Even the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group that represents more than 600 companies, has come out in support of a senate bill in Illinois that would outlaw the tiny beads.

“Plastic micro beads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their exfoliating properties and excellent safety profile. However, our industry shares a common interest with other stakeholders in protecting the environment, and we take questions regarding the presence of plastic micro beads in our waterways very seriously,” the group said when the Illinois Senate bill passed.

“While we believe plastic micro beads in personal care cleansing products are not a significant contributor, our industry is demonstrating leadership on this issue by publicly announcing plans to phase out the use of these ingredients,” the group said in a statement.

Illinois’ proposed law would giving manufacturers and retailers years to comply with the ban.

Legislative language allows manufacturers to make products containing synthetic plastic microbeads until Dec. 31, 2017. Personal care products containing the beads cannot be accepted for sale effective Dec. 31, 2018.

New York State, meanwhile, is being more aggressive through its proposed law. “No person shall sell or offer for sale any personal cosmetic product which contains intentionally-added microbeads” as of Jan. 1, 2016, according to the proposed law.

That New York deadline would be pushed back an additional year for personal care cosmetic products that are also regulated as a drug by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

In California, Assembly bill 1699 prohibits “the sale or promotion of personal care products containing microplastic” on or after Jan. 1, 2016.

“Microbeads are a significant part of the debris accumulating in the Pacific Ocean and are also found at alarming levels in our local waterways,” California Assemblyman Richard Bloom said in a statement when his bill was passed out of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee. “We have no choice but to eliminate this pollution at the source. Waiting will only compound the problem and the price of cleaning up.”

Some consumer products companies are not waiting for a legislative response to the microbead issue.

Johnson & Johnson, for example, already has stopped developing new products containing polyethylene microbeads and is examining alternatives for products already containing them. “Our goal is to complete the first phase of reformulations by the end of 2015,” the company said. That first phase involves about half of the products the company sells that contain microbeads. Work on the remaining half will be determined by what is determined in the first phase, the company said.

And Unilever, the consumer goods giant, said back in 2012 that its products would be free from microbeads in 2015.