Those tiny blue specks in toothpaste and the gritty granules in many facial cleansers could soon be banned in California.
The State Assembly is scheduled to vote Friday on the nation’s toughest ban on plastic microbeads, used in a variety of personal care products, from body wash to exfoliating creams.
Environmentalists say those tiny beads are not biodegradable and generate an estimated 38 tons of plastic pollution in California annually. One jar of facial cleanser can contain more than 300,000 microbeads, which are usually less than 1 millimeter in diameter.
The concern is that the beads wash down drains, go through wastewater treatment plants and end up in oceans, lakes and rivers.
Not only can the beads be ingested by fish, which mistake them for eggs, but they also are a magnet for toxins, which are absorbed by the plastic and end up in creatures’ stomachs, said Sue Vang, a policy analyst at Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit group that is part of a coalition calling for the ban.
“The toxins get injected into fish tissue,” she said, and when people eat the fish, it ends up in their bodies. “Tuna and swordfish are being found with microplastics in their stomachs.”
There is even evidence of dentists finding the particles in patients’ gums, Vang said.
Microbeads are increasingly added to personal care products because they are cheaper than natural exfoliants, such as salt, sugar and ground walnut shells, corn kernels and apricot pits.
After a report revealed the presence of plastic beads in the Great Lakes, Illinois last year banned the sale and manufacture of personal cosmetic products containing added nonbiodegradable synthetic microbeads — the first state to do so. Four other states (New Jersey, Colorado, Maine, Wisconsin) have since passed similar laws or are in the process of enacting them.
A bill introduced in New York failed to pass last year but is likely to be reintroduced because of a report by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that found that 19 tons of microbeads are flushed down the drain in the state and the issue is becoming a problem for water treatment plants there.
Legislation has been considered in 18 states, Vang said, but California’s proposed ban is the only one that would forbid the sale of all products with synthetic microbeads, whether manufacturers claim they break down naturally or not.
“We don’t believe there is anything commercially available that meets an acceptable standard,” she said.
California already prohibits using “biodegradable’’ on labels for products such as plastic water bottles. That 2008 law — the only one in the U.S. — also bars labeling plastic bags and containers as compostable or marine degradable unless the item meets very specific testing standards.
“The bills that have passed so far have very big loopholes in them,” said Stiv Wilson, the campaign director at the Story of Stuff Project, which is part of the coalition pushing for the ban and produced the video “Let’s Ban the Bead!” “California’s is the first really good policy that would actually address the problem.”
Proponents of the ban have been negotiating with manufacturers of personal care products and the association that represents them, the Personal Products Care Council, to come up with environmentally sound substitutes.
The council did not return phone calls asking for comment.
But some major companies, such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, have pledged to use alternatives to plastic microbeads in their merchandise. Already, some firms have phased out the beads in products where they are used more for color than function.
“The thing about plastic is that it’s made to stay around forever,” Wilson said. “That’s why it’s a valuable material. It doesn’t fall apart.”
Some companies are working to create a biodegradable form of the plastic beads, he said, but none want to share their research on microbead alternatives because of industry competition.
“But we want to know that this is safe before we’re going to allow for that,” he said. “We just can’t take industry’s word for it.”
He is working to ensure that a federal ban under consideration does not allow the use of any plastic beads.
Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom, authored the California bill. A version of it passed the Assembly last year but failed in the state Senate by one vote. He’s optimistic that it will pass both houses this year and that when it does, it will trigger change nationwide, he said.
“California is the seventh-largest economy in the world,” he said. “Manufacturers are going to tend to adhere to California standards.”
Microbeads began appearing in products about a decade ago, he said, largely to differentiate products from the competition.
“Microbeads in toothpaste really serve no functional purpose, but we’re led to believe they help,” Bloom said. “Some major manufacturers are already moving to natural alternatives.”