California Bans Microbeads

Plastic has long been known to be a serious threat to our oceans. The infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch is largely comprised of plastic debris of varying sizes and types, and a conservative estimate on the number of marine-animal deaths from ingesting or getting caught in plastic garbage is in the hundreds of thousands.

Now, the state of California has taken a step to protect marine animals. While it’s easy to see plastic bags floating in the water, consumers don’t often consider the impact of a much smaller source of plastic in the oceans, microbeads. Tiny beads made of plastic, and found in everything from facial scrubs to hand soaps and dishwashing detergents, they are intended to act as scrubbers that physically remove grime and other hard-to-remove substances. But since these microbeads are washed out with the water you’ve used, they’ll eventually make their way to a waterway or the ocean.

Here, the microbeads are ingested by animals, typically small fish, and make their way up the food chain. While very small (you can see them as small dots in some liquid soaps), they can add up to a big problem if enough of them end up in the ocean — imagine grinding millions of plastic bottles into a fine powder and dumping it into the ocean, and you get the idea.

On October 8th, California became the latest state to ban these microbeads, joining Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland and New Jersey. Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law banning the use of microbeads in all products from the year 2020. Industry lobbyists and environmentalist groups describe the legislation as stricter than the legislation passed in other states. For instance, the California law also bans biodegradable microbeads, which other states have made exceptions for. However, even the biodegradable options can do significant damage before they are completely broken down.

Richard Bloom, Democratic assemblyman from Santa Monica, the original author of the bill, pointed to the microbeads that have been found washed up in large numbers in the Los Angeles River and many other places.

“We cannot afford to wait any longer to end micro-plastic pollution, the cost to the environment and wildlife is much too great,’’ Bloom said.

The bill is applauded by environmental organizations for having strong language, and few, if any, loopholes, although there is, unfortunately quite a long wait for total enforcement.

“California has passed the most responsible legislation in the world, and now industry can’t pull a bait and switch,” Stiv J. Wilson, campaigns director at the Story of Stuff Project said. “If they want [to] use biodegradable plastics as alternatives, they are going to have to prove they’re safe to the public.”

With a single product containing up to 350,000 microbeads, and California comprising about one-eighth of the total U.S. consumption of personal-care products, billions of these tiny plastic pieces are washed into the waters everyday. Starting on January 1st, 2020, this will come to an end.

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