“This is not the end of exfoliation as we know it,” New York City Council member Dan Garodnick reassured New Yorkers on Wednesday. But if his latest bill passes, New Yorkers may indeed be seeking a new way to scrub.

At issue are “microbeads,” tiny, spherical pieces of plastic used as abrasives and exfoliants in a wide range of personal care and cosmetic items. Garodnick’s bill, introduced in the New York City council this week, would ban the sale of these products and impose fines on stores that continue to carry them.

The bill is co-sponsored by 12 additional City Council members.

Plastic on Your Plate

Microbeads are small, buoyant pieces of plastic used as exfoliants in personal care products.

Microbeads are found in about a hundred products in the U.S., including toothpaste, body wash, and facial cleansers. Because they are so small (5mm or less by most estimates), they easily pass through wastewater treatment plants and are ultimately discharged into New York’s waterways.

A report published by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman estimates that “nearly 19 tons of microbeads [are] potentially being discharged into New York’s wastewater stream each year.”

“The effect,” Rachel Abrams wrote in The New York Times, “is similar to grinding up plastic water bottles, other products of concern to environmentalists, and pumping them into oceans and lakes.”

Microbeads found in the sand. Photo credit: VIMS
Microbeads found in the sand. Photo credit: VIMS

Once in the water, the plastic particles persist for decades and have been shown to absorb chemicals out of the water, particularly toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

They also become food for fish and other aquatic creatures who mistake the buoyant, colorful particles for fish eggs and insects.

According to Schneiderman’s report, “hundreds of different species have been documented as ingesting plastics, ranging from tiny creatures to small fish to larger species like birds, turtles and mammals.”

Ingested plastic has been shown to cause serious harm to wildlife, including internal abrasions and blockages resulting in reductions in food consumption, stunted growth, and starvation. Studies have also shown that the microplastics can be transferred from prey to predator, meaning the toxin-coated plastic could be making its way up the food chain—and possibly to your dinner plate.

“The fish eat ’em. The fish are then eaten by other animals. They end up in our food chain. They end up on our dinner plates,” Schneiderman told WNYC.

Ban the Bead…One County at a Time

None of this is news to lawmakers in New York. In fact, New York was the first state in the nation to call for a ban on microbeads. However, twice now the bill has failed to pass through the Senate, despite garnering nearly unanimous, bipartisan support in the Assembly (139-1). This summer, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan neglected to even bring the bill up for a vote.

This map, provided by Environmental Advocates of New York, details the range and status of microbead bans across the state.

In that time, six other states have enacted legislation to ban or restrict the use of microbeads, including Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, and Maryland. Bills are pending in Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon.

While the honor of being first in the nation is now lost, local New York governments are attempting to bypass the Senate stalemate. Seven county-wide bans have been proposed or enacted across the state.

If Garodnick can garner enough support for his bill, New York City would be the eighth.

Consumers looking to avoid microbeads on their own can view a list of products containing the plastics here.