NYC Considers Scrubbing the Microbead

“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

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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.

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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.

5 Reasons to Ban the Beads

Your toothpaste and body scrub could be polluting our beaches with plastic—and lawmakers in New York want to do something about it.

Microbeads are small, multi-colored pieces of plastic used as exfoliant in many consumer beauty products. Because the beads are so tiny (5mm or less), products can contain hundreds of thousands of pieces. Microbeads are found in things like facial scrubs, skin creams, body washes, and even toothpaste and sunscreen.

Yep, that’s right: you could be scrubbing your face (and your teeth) with plastic.

This week, the NYS Assembly passed the Microbead-Free Water Act which would prohibit the distribution and sale of any product containing microbeads in New York State. Next the legislation must be approved by the NYS Senate and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Wondering why lawmakers are in a lather over these pieces of plastic? We’ve got you covered.

5 Reasons to Ban the Beads

1. They get in our water—and on our beaches:

Photo credit: 5Gyres
Photo credit: 5Gyres

Products containing microbeads are supposed to be washed down the drain—but sewage treatment facilities are not designed to filter these tiny pieces from wastewater. That means they eventually make their way to lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Plastic, of course, is not biodegradable and once the beads enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove.

In 2012, scientists found microbeads numbering more than 450,000 per square kilometer in parts of the Great Lakes.

2. They attract and absorb toxic chemicals.

Photo credit: Eric B.
Photo credit: Eric B.

The surface of microbeads has also been shown to attract and absorb pollutants such as PCBs and DDT from the aquatic environment. These toxins can potentially accumulate in the fatty tissues of anything that eats them.

Speaking of…

3. Microbeads (and their toxic pollutants) can enter our food chain.

Photo credit: Steve Greenberg
Photo credit: Steve Greenberg

Fish and other creatures can easily mistake microbeads for food. Scientists have found plastic in the digestive and circulatory systems of fish, marine mammals and reptiles, mussels, and worms. Scientific studies have shown that fish and wildlife of all sizes consume plastic and that the chemicals (like those pesky PCBs) can be passed up the food chain to larger fish, wildlife, and ultimately humans.

4. They can harm our feathered friends, too.

Photo credit: coniferconifer
Photo credit: coniferconifer

According to Audubon New York, microbeads also pose a threat to many bird species that feed at the water’s surface. Waterbirds can mistake plastics for food—and are susceptible to bioaccumulation of plastic in the fish they eat—with detrimental effect. They can be harmed by the toxic chemicals, and the plastic can build up in their stomachs, leading to decreased food-absorption and ultimately starvation.

5. Microbeads can get lodged in our gums (ouch!).

Photo credit: Unknown
Photo credit: Unknown

A number of toothpaste products contain microbeads made from polyethylene. According to the Official Crest Website, polyethylene is added to your toothpaste for color, not as an aid in helping to clean your teeth or to disperse anti-plaque or anti-cavity ingredients. Dental hygienists have found them lodged in the gums of their patients—see here, if you’re brave.

How to Avoid Microbeads

In the meantime, consumers can also avoid microbeads by reading labels closely: most products that contain them will show “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” in the ingredients list. A coalition of groups has also developed a “Beat the Microbead” app, which lets consumers scan the barcode of a product to see whether it contains plastics. For safe alternatives, look for scrubs with salt, sugar, walnut pieces, jojoba spheres or other natural substances.