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I Don’t Want No Scrub
Plastic microbeads from cosmetic products are filling up our lakes and rivers. New York State is the first seeking to ban them, and others aren't far behind.

New York legislators want to be the first in the country to address a teensy tiny problem: plastic microbeads found in cosmetic products. This week, the state’s attorney general and a state assemblyman introduced a bill that would ban the sale and manufacture of any face wash, toothpaste, soap, or exfoliant that contains these microscopic spheres that slip through water filtration plants and into waterways.

Last year scientists reported finding tens of millions of microbeads bobbing to the surface in Lake Erie (see “Don’t Lather, Don’t Rinse, Don’t Repeat”). The plastic balls pollute water and potentially poison fish and other wildlife that mistake the colorful orbs for food.

“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,” says Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

A number of companies that make the 200-plus products that contain these microbeads—including Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson—have already volunteered to take them out. But that’s not enough, argues 5 Gyres, an organization that combats plastic pollution in waterways. The group worked with the lawmakers on the bill and is planning on rolling out this legislative model in other places. A California assemblyman who collaborated with the organization plans to introduce a bill banning the sale of microbeads today.

“We’re not looking at a one-state strategy,” Stiv J. Wilson, 5 Gyre's policy director, tells the New York Times. “This is the alpha, not the omega.” For those of you who don’t speak Greek, he’s saying microbead bans are only getting started.

Last November, an organization that represents 100 U.S. and Canadian cities around the Great Lakes called for federal organizations to do something about the microbeads, which are only a fraction of a millimeter in diameter. But this is the first step any level of government has taken to address the issue.

These itsy bitsy plastic pieces aren’t the biggest threat to our water, but they do pose problems. Toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can glom onto the microbeads. When fish eat them, the plastic balls get stuck in their digestive tracts and the fish absorb the PCBs into their tissues. (Then guess what happens when we eat those fish?) Further, there's some evidence that when aquatic organisms eat plastic, it fools them into thinking they're full, so they eat less real food and don't grow as much, as indicated by a study done on mussels.

So … how do you know if your beauty routine is adding to the gazillions of beads washing into our waterways? Steer clear of products that have the words “polyethylene” and “polypropylene” on their labels, and download the “Beat the Microbead” app to make sure that what you’re buying is safe—for both you and your scaly-skinned neighbors.

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image of Susan Cosier
Susan Cosier is OnEarth.org's managing editor. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She has a degree in environmental science from Wesleyan University. MORE STORIES ➔
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