The nation’s new ban on microbeads is a classic example of how leadership at the state level can push even a gridlocked Congress to pass sensible environmental protections.
For years, states, including Minnesota, have been at the forefront of efforts to eradicate tiny plastic spheres from personal care products. The beads, which are fewer than 5 millimeters in diameter, have long been marketed as an advanced scrubbing ingredient in facial cleansers, body washes and toothpastes. A single product can contain 300,000 of these particles.
As an award-winning 2014 report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) detailed, microbeads don’t quickly disintegrate after use, raising troubling environmental and human health concerns. Just like any other plastic product, they stay intact for a long time, making their way through wastewater treatments and into lakes and rivers. Researchers have found them in surprising quantities in lakes Huron, Superior and Erie.
The beads’ risks arise from their buoyancy and ability to sponge up other pollutants that may be in the water, preventing these chemicals from settling to the bottom. Fish may also eat the beads, potentially passing pollutants through the food chain to humans.
Bans at the state level have nearly matched the speed of scientific efforts to document the beads’ spread and risks. Illinois passed a prohibition in 2014. Nine other states did so in 2015. Despite the MPCA’s nationally lauded report, Minnesota regrettably is not one of them. Language that would have protected state waters from particle pollution cleared both legislative chambers in 2015 but then was removed from final legislation.
Nevertheless, the Minnesota report helped galvanize the national debate over microbeads. The groundswell at the state level put pressure on federal lawmakers to act. Last month, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, introduced by Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, cleared Congress and was signed into law by President Obama. Two Minnesotans were among the legislation’s cosponsors: Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison, both Democrats.
The ease with which the bill passed through a Republican-controlled Congress generally hostile to new environmental protections raises fair questions about whether it was watered down to gain support. It wasn’t. The new law is solid. Phased-in prohibitions on the manufacture and sale of cosmetics and toothpaste containing the beads begin in July 2017. There don’t appear to be industry-friendly loopholes undermining protections.
Instead, it was support from the personal care product industry that allowed for this new law to go through. State bans forced the industry’s hand. Manufacturers chose to support federal action, which helped pick up Republican votes, rather than face a patchwork of state prohibitions.
Other so-called microplastics resulting from the breakdown of other products remain a water quality concern. The new microbeads ban is not only a step forward, but a blueprint for bolstering broader plastic pollution protections.