Ban on microbeads in consumer products gains momentum

Another state is pushing through legislation that would ban the use of a tiny but apparently environmentally hazardous product found in some popular beauty and skincare products.

On Friday, California's State Assembly voted in favor of a ban on microbeads -- the round bits of plastic, about the size of salt grains, that are used as abrasives in facial scrubs, toothpaste, soaps, bath gels and other products. The bill now moves on to the state Senate.

The bill's sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Richard Bloom, says microbeads "are a significant part of the debris accumulating in the Pacific Ocean and are also found at alarming levels in our local waterways." Legislators in New York and Illinois are also considering measures that would ban microbeads.

Scientists say the non-biodegradable microbeads absorb chemicals, pesticides and other toxins that can eventually end up in the food chain -- and on our dinner plates. High concentrations of microbeads have also been found in The Great Lakes.

"By the time the plastic gets downstream towards the ocean, they become these toxic pills," Marcus Eriksen, executive director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, an advocacy group that monitors plastic pollution in the world's oceans, recently told CBS News. "Even a small microbead, as it tumbles down stream, is picking up all kinds of industrial chemicals."

According to Plastic News, microbeads became increasingly popular over the past decade in cosmetics and other products "as a gentle exfoliating alternative to items such as ground walnut shells, which can have sharp edges that tear sensitive skin or pose an allergy risk to some consumers."

And their popularity is such that the Natural Resources Defense Council reports microbeads can be found in more than 200 different consumer products -- and that Americans annually buy and use cosmetics containing over a half-million pounds of microbeads. 5 Gyres researchers, meanwhile, found that just one tube of a popular facial scrub can contain hundreds of thousands of microbeads.

Several major cosmetic and healthcare companies, including L'Oréal (LRLCY), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Unilever (UN) say they are phasing out the use of plastic microbeads in their products over the next several years.

But trade groups representing cosmetic and personal care product manufacturers are urging the ban be delayed. In April, the D.C.-based Personal Care Products Council called on the Illinois Legislature to hold off on the ban of microbeads until the end of 2017, in order to minimize "marketplace disruptions for consumers."

  • Bruce Kennedy

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