Standing at Champlain Park on Monday, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand joined by Bill Howland, Director of the Lake Champlain Basin Program, and Staff Scientist Mike Winslow, announced a new push to ban plastic microbeads in personal care products. Senator Gillibrand has introduced the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, legislation to federally ban cosmetics containing synthetic plastic microbeads.
An April 2015 report released by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office found that microbeads were present in 74 percent of water samples taken from 34 municipal and private treatment plants across New York State.
Plastic microbeads are found in personal care products like facial scrubs, body washes, hand cleansers, and toothpaste (find a list here). These products are designed to be rinsed down the drain, but the microbeads are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants.
The plastic microbeads could have an adverse effect on the state’s fish populations, hurting the commercial and recreational fishing industries, tourism industry, and the general economic well-being of the state’s coastal communities according to supporters of the ban.
“These tiny pieces of plastic have already caused significant ecological damage to New York’s waterways, and they will continue to do so until they are removed from the marketplace. That’s why I introduced bipartisan legislation to federally ban microbeads across the country,” said Senator Gillibrand said. “Plastic microbeads are too small to be stopped by normal water treatment systems, and they collect toxins in the water that harm not only fish and birds, but also the people in this region who rely on them for food and wellbeing.”
The state of Illinois has already banned plastic microbeads in consumer products, with legislation being considered in 13 other states including New York. Attorney General Schneiderman has been supporting efforts in New York to ban the beads, and the April 2015 report study conducted by his office concluded that microbeads “are systematically passing through wastewater treatment plants across New York State and entering bodies of water.”
It is estimated that up to 19 tons of plastic microbeads wash down drains each year and into New York’s waterways. They can last for decades, and when found in oceans and lakes, pose environmental and health risks because of the pollutants they can attract and carry. Wildlife and aquatic animals ingest the beads, which cause internal issues and exposure to concentrated levels of toxins.
Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) data shows that Clinton, Franklin and Essex Counties predominantly rely on 28 wastewater treatment plants of different sizes and capabilities. Water collected from two of these plants, both in Essex County, were found to contain microbeads in the State Attorney General’s 2015 report. Several of these plants, like most plants throughout New York, do not employ advanced treatment that would remove microbeads. When the approximately 19 tons of microbeads are washed down the drain every year, most enter plants that are not equipped to stop them from being discharged into Lake Champlain, the St. Lawrence River, and other surrounding waters.
Senator Gillibrand introduced the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 with Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Gary Peters (D-MI) on May 21, 2015. The legislation is also co-sponsored by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH). Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) has introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
Photos: Above, a handful of microbeads (courtesy Beat the Microbead); below, some of the many products that contain microbeads (courtesy the Marine Conservation Society).