With Gov. Jerry Brown's signature early this month, California is the latest state to ban the sale of products containing plastic microbeads under what lawmakers there boast is the most stringent legislation to date.
The law will take effect Jan. 1, 2020, and prohibit the sale of personal care products from face scrubs to toothpaste containing more than one part per million of plastic microbeads.
Unlike already existing bans such as the one in Illinois, the California ban encompasses all plastic microbeads, including biodegradable materials, which California legislators considered a loophole, even for future products. The only thing the California new law exempts is natural exfoliants.
It would be “really helpful” to have biodegradable material in the marine environment, said Mark Murray of Californians Against Waste, one of the new law's champions. “But there is currently no technology, no material for truly biodegradable plastic.”
While it may be the latest and toughest, California's is unlikely to be the last state to enact a microbead ban.
Loopholes like those in other states for biodegradable materials are what is actually slowing down an anti-microbead bill in the Michigan legislature.
Though legislators agree there should be a microbead ban in the Great Lakes State — and even the Washington-based Personal Care Products Council concurs — there is disagreement over whether House Bill 4345 should leave room for biodegradables.
In New York, where the state legislature is at a similar impasse, counties have begun taking up the issue, rather than wait for Albany to sort itself out.
In April, the New York State Assembly voted 139 to 1 to ban products containing microbeads as of Jan 1. But in the state Senate, the session ended without any action on its companion bill authored by Sen. Thomas F. O'Mara (R-Elmira), chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee — in spite of the bill carrying 37 co-sponsors in a chamber where it only needed 32 votes to pass.
Dissatisfied with the statewide political process and concerned about microbeads continuing to slip through local water treatment facilities and into the Great Lakes and the rest of the watershed, Erie County in August unanimously passed its own microbead ban.
Since then, several New York counties have fallen in step, proposing bans on their own in Albany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Monroe, Niagra counties.
In an attempt to avoid a state-by-state, or even county-by-county patchwork of laws, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) introduced a federal ban on microbeads in the U.S. House in March. Though it quickly gathered 36 bipartisan cosponsors and sailed through a committee vote, it has since stalled out. A companion bill in the Senate, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has yet to see even committee action.
Ban supporters are far from hopeful about the future of a federal law banning microbeads.
“No one in their right mind thinks Congress is going to do anything on this,” Murray said. “Congress has been incapable of organizing itself to get anything done on this. Congress doesn't give a shit about recycling issues.”