New York and California propose bans on microplastics found in cosmetics

plastic microbeads
© Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres. Microplastics found in Lake Michigan.

Here's a race to cheer for: New York and California are neck-in-neck to become the first state to ban microbeads in body wash and other cosmetics.

The tiny plastic bits that serve as exfoliants in personal care products are so small that they slip through municipal wastewater treatment, and end up in lakes, rivers and oceans. Once introduced to the aquatic environment, they are ingested by fish and other wildlife.

Legislation introduced in California proposes a ban on all products containing microbeads. "It's important to get to this before it becomes a wide-scale problem—before it requires a very expensive response," California Assemblyman Richard Bloom told The LA Times. "We know enough about marine biology to know that it will grow in magnitude and continue to be a problem."

New York's proposed law goes even further. The Microbead-Free Waters Act not only bans the sale of these products but also the production, manufacture and distribution of products containing plastics of 5 millimeters or smaller. “From the Great Lakes to the Hudson River to Long Island Sound, our commitment to protecting and restoring New York’s waters is among our most important responsibilities,” New York Attorney General Schneiderman said in a press release.

Several manufacturers have already committed to removing microbeads from their products, including The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson and Unilever. However, legislation is a more aggressive tactic for slowing the flow of these plastics. If California and New York can set the pace, hopefully more states will follow.

There are a number of alternatives to plastics available to manufactures, such as cocoa beans or apricot pits. If consumers want to avoid plastic beads, the Natural Resources Defense Counsel recommends not purchasing products with “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” on their labels.

Legislation in both states was shaped in part by the advocacy group 5 Gyres, which has also been studying mircoplastic pollution in the Great Lakes. In an interview in July, 5 Gyres co-founder Anna Cummins told TreeHugger that microplastics are virtually impossible to filter out of our waterways.

"This just underscores the importance of prevention, and source reduction," she said. "Once in our lakes and oceans, plastics are there to stay, unless they are eaten by organisms, or wash back up onto shore."

New York and California propose bans on microplastics found in cosmetics
States seek to stop the flow of the of tiny beads into waterways and oceans.