California is lining up to become the largest state to ban the sale of cosmetic products, such as facial scrubs, containing tiny plastic beads that find their way into waterways and the ocean.
Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) plans to introduce a bill Thursday that would ban the sale of products containing the microbeads, which are too small to be removed by water treatment processes after they drain out of sinks and showers.
A New York legislator introduced a similar measure Tuesday after scientists found high concentrations of the tiny exfoliating beads in the state's lakes and other waters.
Researchers warn that the microbeads, which are not biodegradable, are ingested by fish and other animals, potentially ending up in the food chain. The tiny plastic orbs have already been found in California waters and in the Pacific Ocean.
FOR THE RECORD:
Microbead bill: An article in the Feb. 13 Business section about the planned introduction of a bill to ban the sale of cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads in California misspelled the name of the environmental group 5 Gyres, which helped craft the legislation, as 5 Gyers. —
The bill, which would impose civil penalties, isn't as far reaching as New York's, which would ban not just the sale, but also the manufacture of products containing plastic particles 5 millimeters or smaller in diameter.
Nonetheless, its introduction is a victory for the 5 Gyers Institute, a Santa Monica environmental and advocacy nonprofit with just five staff members. The group, which found high levels of microbeads in the Great Lakes in 2012 and is researching plastic pollution in California, helped craft the legislation in both states.
"5 Gyers is a really nimble organization," said Stiv Wilson, the group's policy director. "We take pride we were able to get this bill introduced in two really important states."
Major cosmetic companies, including Procter & Gamble Co. and Johnson & Johnson, have already pledged to phase out the use of the plastic microbeads from their products.
"We are discontinuing our limited use of micro plastic beads as scrub materials in personal care products as soon as alternatives are qualified," said Mandy Wagner, a Procter & Gamble spokeswoman. "In addition, we have decided not to introduce micro plastic beads into any new product category."
Wagner did not immediately provide a timeline for when the company would end the use of the plastic beads.
In a statement on its website, Johnson & Johnson said it hopes to complete the first phase of reformulations for about half of its products by the end of 2015. The remaining products will be reformulated once substitutes are identified.
Other cosmetic companies already use ingredients, such as apricot and walnut shells, that accomplish the same job without harming the environment.
A spokeswoman for the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on the pending legislation until the organization completes a full review of the proposed bills.
Cosmetics makers over the last decade have increasingly added microbeads to facial scrubs, soaps, toothpaste and other products. 5 Gyres said that a single product can contain as many as 350,000 of the polyethylene or polypropylene microbeads.
"Microbeads may seem insignificant, but their small size is what's the problem," Wilson said. The beads act as a sponge for toxic pollutants, which fish and other aquatic life can mistake for food, he said.
Bloom, who was instrumental in passing a plastic bag ban in Santa Monica when he was mayor there, said he expects some push-back from business groups but that he's encouraged that large companies appear to be phasing out the plastic orbs.
"If … the industry is roughly on the same page in recognizing the long-term danger to sea life and habitat … this is going to be a very easy process," he said.
Though research hasn't yet established that fish and other aquatic life are ingesting microbeads and contaminating the food chain, Bloom said early evidence on plastic pollution in general is sufficient.
"It's important to get to this before it becomes a wide-scale problem — before it requires a very expensive response," he said. "We know enough about marine biology to know that it will grow in magnitude and continue to be a problem."