Congress draws a bead on plastics in cosmetics

Congress appears primed to ban the use of plastic microbeads after discovering they also are being found in the nation’s lakes and streams.

By Patrick Crow

Congress appears primed to ban the use of plastic microbeads after discovering they also are being found in the nation’s lakes and streams.

The minuscule bits are used in toothpaste, soaps, face and body washes, and over-the-counter drugs. Sewage treatment plants don’t always capture them, and they are collecting in streams, rivers and lakes.

Last November, the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved H.R. 1321, which would phase out synthetic and “biodegradable” microbeads smaller than five millimeters from personal care products beginning on July 1, 2017.

The bill was introduced by Fred Upton (R.-Mich.), the committee chairman, and Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), the senior Democrat on the panel. It would preempt any similar state law. No opposition was expected in the full House or the Senate.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) have introduced a companion bill. They said researchers at the State University of New York in Fredonia found from 1,500 to 1.1 million microbeads per square mile in the Great Lakes.

“Microbeads seem like a nice way to get extra ‘scrub’ in your soap, but they pose a very real danger to our Great Lakes,” Stabenow said. Peters said human food supplies are threatened, since fish, birds and other wildlife often mistake the beads for food.

Last October, three other U.S. senators urged retailers to stop selling products containing microbeads. Their letter reacted to a Southern Connecticut State University study on microbeads in Long Island Sound.

Sens. Chris Murphy (D.-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote to the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the National Retail Federation. They said, “Due to their tiny size, microbeads often cannot be successfully removed from wastewater streams by municipal sewage plants. Just one personal care product can contain hundreds of thousands of these beads, which typically do not biodegrade, as they require high heat processing to break down.”

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies supported the House bill. It said its members, totaling nearly 300 public wastewater utilities, are concerned about the impacts of consumer products on treatment processes.

“While utilities can regulate the discharges from industries and businesses to the sewer system through their industrial pretreatment programs, they have no authority to control discharges of pollutants from residential sources. Preventing pollution from consumer products must therefore be accomplished through state or federal laws or regulations addressing their use,” it said.

Major associations representing cosmetic product manufacturers did not oppose the House bill.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) said, “Plastics provide many important benefits to modern life, but they don’t belong in lakes, oceans or other waterways. ACC [along with environmentalists and personal care product manufacturers] has supported legislation to phase out microbeads from personal care products in New Jersey and Illinois.”

The Personal Care Products Council said a federal law is needed to preclude a proliferation of conflicting state and local restrictions.

The council said, “Plastic microbeads are used in cosmetic and personal care cleansing products because of their safe and effective exfoliating properties. Research from around the world ... reveals that microbeads from all types of industrial uses are tiny contributors to marine plastic debris - and personal care products would at most contribute just a small fraction of that.

“At the same time, our member companies take very seriously their role as environmental stewards. As a result, they have voluntarily committed to replace solid plastic microbeads in favor of other viable alternatives.”

About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.

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