Legislation Watch: The Proposed "Microbead-Free Waters Act"

Posted on April 29, 2015

By: Greta K. Kolcon, Esq.

New York legislators are considering an amendment to the existing environmental conservation law which would prohibit the distribution and sale of personal cosmetic products containing microbeads within New York State. A bill banning microbeads was introduced in 2014 and previously passed the Assembly in 2014 by a vote of 131 to 0. A somewhat different bill to ban microbeads was introduced in the Senate in 2014 but was not brought to the floor for a vote. Illinois became the first state to pass a microbead ban last year, and Maine became the second state to adopt a similar ban. Wisconsin and Colorado followed.Five European nations, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Luxemburg issued a joint statement in December 2014 calling for the EU to ban microplastics and their chemical additives in both cosmetics and detergents.New York is expected to consider the issue this year, although vote counters have not yet projected whether it is expected to receive full support.

What Is A "Microbead?"

Plastic microbeads are a new pollutant in all five great lakes. A 2012 study conducted by State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia and by 5 Gyres, an advocacy group, discovered substantial and previously unexpected levels of microbead pollution in Lake Erie.Microbeads are tiny plastic particles used in cosmetic products, often as exfoliates. Microbead products are typically found in shaving cream, facial scrubs, cosmetic and beauty products.These tiny plastic particles are designed by manufacturers to be used, be rinsed off, and go straight down the drain. The problem is that these tiny plastic microbeads are not filtered out of the water system.

Microbeads are roughly the size of plankton and fish eggs.They are approximately the size of the head of a small pin. These plastic beads can act as sponges and soak up chemical pollutants in the environment, including PCBs and insecticides.They do not break down quickly, and may continue to exist for centuries.They have been found in the digestive tracts of fish and water animals. According to the National Audubon Society, they also pose danger to many bird species. By making their way into the food chain, they also pose the risk of being ingested by humans.

How Can You Tell Whether A Product Contains Microbeads?

Read the labels on the products you are purchasing. You might need a magnifying glass to read some of the fine print. However, your products contain plastic microbeads if the following are in the ingredient list: polyethylene or polypropylene, as well as terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate and nylon. Suitable replacements include ground walnut shells, sea salt and natural materials used as abrasives.

What Can Citizens Do About Microbeads?

The only way to stop these plastic microbeads from infiltrating waterways is to eliminate their use. These tiny plastics can travel worldwide through waterways, and are projected to last thousands of years.There appears to be broad support for the passage of this ban in New Yor State, but citizens can voice their support for the ban to their legislative representatives.Some major companies which produce cosmetic products containing microbeads have indicated a willingness to start phasing out the use of microbeads in their products, but that is expected to take a number of years.However, educated consumers have a choice today about what products they continue to purchase and use, and so the most immediate impact is to simply stop using products that contain microbeads and to educate others about the danger posed by these tiny plastic particles.

Greta K. Kolcon is a Partner in the firm's Litigation Department. She is also the current Treasurer and former co-chair of the Enviromental Committee for The Women's Bar Association of the State of New York, which adopted a formal legislative position statement in support of the microbead ban in March, 2015.

Greta K. Kolcon