In the News  Archive

Scrub bead ban bill on tap

Times Union
February 19, 2015

By Brian Nearing

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is making another bid to get a state ban on the sale of soap, shampoo and toothpaste containing tiny plastic spheres that flow straight through most municipal sewer systems into the ocean, Lake Erie and the Hudson River.

This is the second time Schneiderman has targeted plastic microbeads, which are bits of plastic smaller than a grain of sand that are used as mild scrubbers in dozens of nationally sold health and beauty products.

On Wednesday, Schneiderman said he submitted a proposal to state legislative leaders to revive an effort he attempted in 2014, and which cleared the Democratic-controlled Assembly by 131-0 but died without a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate. The new bill calls for the ban to start on Jan. 1.

"This common-sense legislation will stop the flow of plastic pollution from ill-designed beauty products into our vital waters, preserving our natural heritage for future generations," said Schneiderman in a statement that also included support from U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a research scientist and a variety of environmental groups.

Impossible to effectively remove from the water, beads can collect certain types of pollution, like toxic PCBs, and then can be eaten by fish and other wildlife, with the toxins accumulating to pass up the food chain, possibly to humans. The tiny plastic beads have been in widespread commercial use since the 1990s.

The plastic can last for decades, fragmenting repeatedly into ever-smaller pieces. Beads "are turning up everywhere, even in Arctic sea ice," according to a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Research from the State University of New York at Fredonia found lakes Erie and Ontario contain tens of millions of microbeads — high enough concentrations to rival those found in the infamous ocean floating garbage patches, according to a 2014 report issued by Schneiderman.

Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor at SUNY Fredonia has studied the problem. "Our results have confirmed that high concentrations of microbeads ... are making their way through the wastewater treatment plant process," she said, adding: "The proposed bill will strike at the source of this serious problem."

Each year in New York, about 19 tons of microbeads wash down the drain, flow through sewer plants that have no equipment to intercept them and wind up in the lakes, rivers and the ocean, where they last essentially forever, acting as sponges for toxic pollution.

A place with the population of Albany County — which discharges treated sewage into the Hudson — likely generates about 590 pounds of microbeads annually that run down drains and ultimately find their way into the river, experts said. Testing last fall also found microbeads in the Mohawk River, the Erie Canal, Cayuga Lake and Oneida Lake, Schneiderman said.

"The Adirondack Park is known for its pure waters, wildlife and healthy communities. Microbeads are a threat to all three," said Adirondack Council Executive Director William Janeway.

Support for the ban also comes from New York League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Audubon New York, National Audubon Society, Hudson Riverkeeper, Western New York Environmental Alliance and the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Last month, the Erie County Legislature unanimously passed a resolution supporting state legislation to ban microbeads.

In early 2014, when New York first considered a ban, the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Healthcare Products Association opposed the measure, telling lawmakers that the December 2015 ban was too soon to allow the industry to find alternatives in production and packaging, and to sell its inventory of microbead products. The association urged the ban be delayed until December
2017.

Also in 2014, Illinois became the first state to ban the beads. Bans also are being considered in Colorado and other states, while lawmakers in California narrowly rejected a ban last year.

How to check
Consumers can check products for the presence of microbeads using a smart phone app developed by the the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation. Function for both Android and iPhone, the app is available at http://get.beatthemicrobead.org

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