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Michigan lawmakers consider banning microbeads in consumer products

Oct 13, 2015

Michigan lawmakers are talking about banning tiny balls of plastic in products sold in Michigan.

A lot of us use products with microbeads in them. They’re tiny, perfectly round plastic beads that companies add to face and body scrubs and toothpaste.

We wash them down the drain, but they’re so small that wastewater treatment plants can’t filter them out.

Scientists are finding these tiny plastic beads in the Great Lakes. They're also showing up in fish.

Several states have passed laws to phase out microbeads in consumer products – including Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Now Michigan lawmakers are considering whether to do that here, too.

Microbead bills

State Representative Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes) introduced HB 4345 to phase out microbeads in personal care products and over-the-counter drugs in the next few years.

“We’re giving industry time to cease production, then giving them time to deplete their stock,” Outman says.

The Michigan Chemistry Council backs the bill. But some state lawmakers and environmental groups say it doesn’t go far enough.

Jack Schmitt is the deputy director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. He says there’s a loophole that would allow plastic microbeads that are biodegradable.

“Which sounds good – we all hear biodegradable and think that’s a good thing,” Schmitt says. “But it’s really not a term that’s based in science. It’s a term that any producer of cosmetics can just apply to their products without any verification of it actually biodegrading in a set amount of time.”

He says they support two other bills (HB 4287 and SB 158) in the state legislature that would ban all plastic microbeads.

Industry groups say they’re already moving to phase them out.

Neither Proctor & Gamble nor Johnson & Johnson provided a recorded interview for this story, but in emailed statements, both companies said they're already taking steps to phase plastic microbeads out of their products.

Here’s what Proctor & Gamble said:

P&G has made the decision to discontinue our limited use of plastic microbeads as scrub materials in personal care products and are actively working to replace them with alternatives. In the meantime we already have plenty of product options available without microbeads for those who would prefer them. Our goal is to complete removal of microbeads from all of our products by 2017.  

And the statement from Johnson & Johnson:

In 2013, the Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies, announced that we are phasing out and will eliminate the use of polyethylene microbeads in our personal care products by the end of 2017. We have stopped developing new products containing polyethylene microbeads and have been conducting environmental safety assessments of other alternatives.  In fact, we have already reformulated some products which now contain jojoba wax exfoliates.  Our environmental safety assessments are part of our “informed substitution” approach, which helps ensure that the alternatives we choose are safe and environmentally sound, and that they provide consumers with a great experience. Our goal is to complete the first phase of reformulations by the end of 2015, which represents about half our products sold that contain microbeads.

Some people argue that these politically popular bans on microbeads are a distraction from bigger pollution issues.

Allen Burton is a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.

"It's low hanging fruit for regulating, which is fine - nobody wants plastics in their water, that's for sure, but when people like the attorney general for the state of New York are saying, 'By banning microbeads, we're going to be protecting and restoring the state's waters.' It's just simply not true," he says.

Burton says there are legitimate concerns about these tiny plastic beads and scientists need to continue to study them.

Microbeads aren’t the only problem

Microbeads are not the only kind of tiny plastic pollution that’s getting into our rivers and lakes.

Sherri Mason has been studying microplastics in the Great Lakes.  She’s a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

She’s found everything from microfibers from our fleece clothing to fragments of plastic trash that have broken down. She says microbeads make up about 15-20% of the plastic pollution they've measured in the Great Lakes.

To figure out how big of a problem this tiny plastic pollution is, Mason says she and her team began by looking at fish species. The fish species they’ve studied are mainly from Lake Erie.

“We surveyed 25 species of fish and we looked in their gastrointestinal tract,” she says. “And every single species of fish has had some amount of plastic in it.”

She says a fish’s trophic level, or place in the food web, has a lot to do with the quantities of plastic found.

Mason says they found between one to three particles of plastic in fish at lower trophic levels and around five to eight particles of plastic in fish at medium trophic levels.

And they examined the stomach contents of one species of bird.

“We tested the double-crested cormorant, which is a bird that lives on fish, and found on average 36 pieces of plastic,” Mason says.

She says these results show that plastic is infiltrating the food web.

So does this plastic hurt animals?

“With regard to these species that we’ve looked at thus far in the Great Lakes, we don’t really know,” Mason says.

Mason says she and her team only started looking into plastic in the Great Lakes around three years ago and research into plastic in freshwater bodies is still young. But she says there's more research on plastic pollution in marine systems.

“As a field of research, people have been studying plastic pollution in the world’s oceans for 10-15 years longer than they’ve been looking in freshwater systems,” she says. “And oceanic studies do indicate that the plastic is having an impact. The microplastics are having an impact on these organisms, basically on their circulatory system and their reproduction.”

Mason says if you want to avoid buying products with microbeads in them, you can look for the words "polyethylene" or "polypropylene" on the labels. If you don’t see those ingredients, the product should be microbead free.

*This post has been updated.