Good riddance to microbeads

Artwork by first grader Johanna N. courtesy of the  NOAA Marine Debris Program

It’s hard to muster a lot of sympathy for the plastics industry. Especially if you know anything at all about the vast islands of plastic debris that foul our oceans. Or if one of those heart-wrenching photos of a baby sea turtle entangled in trash makes it into your Facebook feed. Or if you take just a moment to think about all the toxic, plastic pollution entering our food chain.

The industry would have us believe the blame falls squarely with consumers. After all, we buy this stuff, we toss it out, and—let’s be honest—most of us don’t do everything we can to make sure it ends up recycled or in a landfill instead of the ocean.

But then there are microbeads—those pointless plastic particles used in personal care products, that pretty much have no reason to exist. Who was the jerk who came up with this idea? What was the pitch in the boardroom? “So, we don’t have any reason to think people actually want plastic nubbins in their soap and toothpaste, but let’s put it in there and call it an innovation. In fact, let’s put 350,000 pieces of polyethylene in every bottle of face scrub we sell, and sit back while this stuff washes down millions of drains and into the environment.”

Thankfully, not everyone is so cavalier, and last month the California Assembly passed legislation banning plastic microbeads in personal care products sold in California. If signed into law, AB 888 would be the strongest protection in the country against these frivolous pollutants.

That’s important, because while the particles are tiny, they accumulate in huge numbers. An estimated 470 million are released into San Francisco Bay every single day, where they bind with other environmental toxins and appear as food to wildlife, polluting our food chain.

It’s easy to get riled up by water bottles, disposable bags and identifiable consumer junk that pollute our ocean, because we can see those things. And the companies that make this stuff can try to put all the blame on consumers, as if they have no responsibility for the life cycle of the products they create. But Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste (a sponsor of AB 888) put it best when he said:

“If a manufacturer tried to dump 40 tons of plastic pollution into the ocean, they would be arrested and fined for violating the Clean Water Act. But these cosmetic and soap makers are doing the same thing on a daily basis with billions of plastic microbeads washed down millions of drains.”

It’s worth noting that some companies have pledged to phase microplastics out of their products, but many producers are still using them. And even if the bill is signed into law, the ban doesn’t go into effect until 2020.

That leaves enough time for 771,975,000,000 microbeads to pour into our Bay. So in the meantime, how about we all just agree to stop using this stuff now?