NPR Story
4:34 pm
Thu February 13, 2014

Ban On Microbeads Gaining Steam

Today, California Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica is introducing legislation that would ban the sale of products containing microbeads. Earlier this week, New York State introduced similar legislation.

Microbeads are those little beads of plastic in face wash and other products, meant to exfoliate the skin. But after they go down the drain, they end up in lakes and waterways where they stay for centuries, leaching chemicals and sometimes getting into the food chain.

The New York legislation is based on research into levels of microbeads in the Great Lakes by professor Sam Mason at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

New York state assemblyman Robert Sweeney is sponsoring the New York legislation to ban microbeads, and joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the issue.

Interview Highlights: Robert Sweeney

On the environmental impact of microbeads 

“In both salt water and fresh water, primarily wherever there might be sewage treatment plants that empty into a body of water, you’re almost certainly going to find these microbeads, because they get, you know, washed down the drain. They may be down the drain, but they’re not gone. They go right through the sewage treatment plants, which are not equipped to deal with them, and end up in our waterways, where, because they are plastic, they will be pretty much forever.”

“They don’t look like foreign matter to fish. They’re very tiny. They actually look a little bit like other fish’s eggs, and so fish eat them. The microbeads, as they go through this whole process through the sewage treatment into waterways, can become coated with any toxins that might be in those waters, PCBs and other things. They float, they’re buoyant, and so fish eat them, and other things eat the fish. And so all of a sudden, you’ve introduced these microbeads, possibly with accompanying toxins, into the food chain.”

On anticipating industry push back against the bill

“I can tell you with past experience with similar types of bills that, yeah, we will absolutely get a lot of push back. In fact, we have gotten a call from a lobbyist representing the microbead manufacturers that wants to come in and talk to us. But the experience of the California legislator is something that I have experienced also whenever we’ve proposed something, especially with regard to chemicals or similar types of products. There is a very active lobby effort out there, supported by the manufacturers of these products, who simply do not want to change the way they do business. And that becomes a problem with some legislators. Typically, in New York state, a bill like this would pass probably, and I expect it to pass rather easily in the assembly. But in the state Senate, which might be a little more receptive to the arguments made on the other side, it becomes problematic.”

On a possible national change if New York bans microbeads

“Years ago, California passed legislation on flammability standards in furniture, and what happened, because California is such a big state, like New York is a big state, is the manufacturers simply accommodated all their products, they made all their products in a way to meet the California standard on flammability. And I think, you know, with a state the size of New York, and maybe if some other states join in, what will happen is the manufacturers will change their entire product line. They’re not going to try and sell a product with one formulation in New York and another formulation in, you know, Delaware or wherever. So I suspect what would happen is the manufacturers would simply change the way they make the product and do that nationwide.”

Guest

  • Robert Sweeney, New York State assemblyman who is sponsoring legislation to ban microbeads.
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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And there are some legislation being introduced in California today that would ban the sale of products containing microbeads. That follows a similar move in New York State earlier this week. Now, Microbeads, if you don't know, are those little beads of plastic in face wash and other body products that are meant to help you exfoliate. But after they're done with your skin, they travel down the drain into lakes and waterways where they can stay for a long time, leaking chemicals and sometimes getting into the food chain.

New York State Assemblyman Robert Sweeney is the man behind the legislation to ban microbeads in New York. He's with us from Lindenhurst. Mr. Sweeney, thanks for being with us.

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN ROBERT SWEENEY: You're welcome, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, tell us how much of a problem this is right now, especially in your state of New York?

SWEENEY: Well, it's a problem that is developing and that we're learning more about as studies are done indicating that there are high concentrations of these microbeads, these plastic beads in both salt water and fresh water. Primarily wherever there might be sewage treatment plants that empty into a body of water, you're almost certainly going to find these microbeads because they get, you know, washed down the drain. And they may be down the drain, but they're not gone. They go right through the sewage treatment plants, which are not equipped to deal with them, and end up in our waterways, where because they are plastic, they will be pretty much forever.

HOBSON: And fish eat them. This is the problem, right?

SWEENEY: Yeah. They don't look like foreign matter to fish. They're very tiny. They look actually a little bit like other fish eggs, and so fish eat them. The microbeads, as they go through this whole process through the sewage treatment and out into waterways, can become coated with any toxins that might be in those waters, PCBs or other things. They float. They're buoyant. And so fish see them. Fish eat them. And other things eat the fish. And so all of a sudden you've introduced these microbeads, possibly with accompanying toxins, into the food chain.

HOBSON: Who are the worst offenders right now in terms of companies and products?

SWEENEY: Well, you know, the products are mostly things like body wash, shampoo, toothpaste, anything that requires an abrasive. Many of them have come to use these microbeads. They used to use natural products. Some of them still do, like powdered nut shells, for example, walnut shells or apricots, and they're are products that are all-natural that advertise that they contain any plastic, that they use only natural. So there are alternatives that they could be using which would be fairly easy to use. But there are thousands of these products that are made all around the world by any number of manufacturers.

Some of the manufacturers, to their credit, are now recognizing that there is a problem here. And they have announced that they will phase out the use of microbeads. And some of them are some, you know, pretty big-name manufacturers like Colgate-Palmolive and the Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson. So that's a good thing, but there are still many, many manufacturers out there that haven't made any kind of commitment and continue to make these products. So we're hoping that either they will become sufficiently aware of the problem they're causing, or in the alternative that they will have to comply with the ban that we are proposing.

HOBSON: Well, yeah. We just recently spoke with a lawmaker in California, actually, who is trying to ban filtered cigarettes because the cigarette butts end up all over the place. They're a big source of litter. And he's facing a lot of pushback from the industry. He knows it's going to be very hard to do this. Are you facing any pushback from companies that say, no, this is where we make our money, we're not going to get rid of our microbeads?

SWEENEY: Yeah. Well, we've just introduced the bill, but I can tell you from past experience with similar types of bills that, yeah, we'll absolutely get a lot of pushback. As a matter of fact, we have gotten a call from a lobbyist representing the microbead manufacturers who wants to come in and talk to us. But the experience of the California legislator is something that I have experienced also whenever we've proposed anything, especially with regard to chemicals or similar types of products. There is a very active lobby effort out there supported by the manufacturers of these products who simply do not want to change the way they do business. And that becomes a problem with some legislators.

Typically, in New York State a bill like this would pass, probably, and I expect it to pass rather easily in the Assembly. But in the State Senate, which might be a little bit more receptive to the arguments made on the other side, you know, it becomes problematic. And so it really is an issue in terms of attempting to pass legislation like this or such as the one proposed by the California legislator.

HOBSON: There's another question here, which is: How would you enforce something like this? Because given the interstate commerce in this country, somebody could just buy something with microbeads in New Jersey or in Connecticut or in any other state and bring it into New York, and then you've got the problem that you have no control over.

SWEENEY: Yeah. No - you're right. Now, there's other a couple of things here. First of all, you know, I think most people don't even know that these microbeads are in products that they're buying, and they, probably if they knew, wouldn't be too thrilled with the fact. So I don't think that they're going to be deliberately looking for products with microbeads.

But you know what we found - and, again, it's interesting, the California comparison. Years ago, California passed legislation on flammability standards in furniture. And what happened - because California is such a big state, like New York is a big state - is the manufacturers simply accommodated all their products. They made their products all the same way, to meet the California standard on flammability.

And I think, you know, with a state the size of New York, and then maybe if some other states join in, what will happen is the manufacturers will simply change their entire product line. They're not going to try and sell one product with one formulation in New York, and another product with another formulation in, you know, Delaware, or wherever. So I suspect what would happen is the manufacturers would simply change the way that they make the products, and do that nationwide.

HOBSON: New York State Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, a Democrat, who has introduced legislation to ban body products with microbeads across New York state. Mr. Sweeney, thanks so much for talking with us.

SWEENEY: Thanks, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And a quick update now on another story we've been following about Mamoru Samuragoch, the guy they call the Japanese Beethoven, because of his fame as a composer and the fact that he, like Beethoven, was deaf, or so we thought. He recently admitted that someone else had been composing his music for 18 years. And yesterday, he admitted that he, indeed, can hear, after claiming to be deaf for quite some time. Well, Mamoru, if you're listening, here's the symphony you didn't write.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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