Plastic Microbeads in Waters Prompt Regulatory Efforts

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Amena H. Saiyid

Sept. 22 — Every morning, tiny, perfectly round synthetic beads of plastic found in face and body washes and toothpaste swirl down the drains of U.S. households, flow unimpeded through wastewater treatment plants and spill into rivers, lakes and estuaries, accumulating in ever-increasing quantities where people fish and swim.

There is no evidence that these artificially colored microbeads—which are virtually unbreakable, specially engineered and at most a millimeter in size—cause specific environmental harm.

But significant quantities of microbeads, which can act like sponges and adsorb toxic chemicals on their surface, have been found in all five Great Lakes over the past three years, prompting concern that they can end up in fish and make their way up the food chain. These findings have led to action at the state and local levels, and now Congress is getting involved.

To date, eight states—Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey and Wisconsin—and at least one county, Erie County in New York, have enacted laws to ban the manufacture of personal care products containing microbeads—starting as early as Dec. 31, 2017, and to ban their sale as early as Dec. 31, 2018.

The California State Legislature just passed a ban on the sale, but not on the manufacture, of personal care products that contain microbeads, starting Jan. 1, 2020. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has not indicated whether he would sign the measure.

Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington also tried and failed this year to enact bans on manufacture and sale, while Oregon's legislature is considering similar bans.

Taking the cue from states, Congress is now weighing in with the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 (H.R. 1321; S. 1424), which would require the Food and Drug Administration to ban the sale, distribution and possibly the manufacture of personal care products that contain microbeads—often advertised as abrasives that claim to “exfoliate and cleanse” skin or teeth—starting Jan. 1, 2018. The deadline was chosen to conform to existing state bans and to give companies time to reformulate their products, according to the House bill's author, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), and chief sponsor, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

A companion measure was introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who said she has heard from New Yorkers concerned about the threats microbeads pose to the waterways, her spokesman Marc Brumer said.

(Click image to enlarge.)


Positive Step Toward Pollution Reduction

Supporters of the measure said they know it won't solve the larger problem of plastic pollution in our waters, but they still see it as a positive step toward reducing the amount of plastic polluting the nation's waters.

Pallone, in particular, told Bloomberg BNA he is confident that by the time ban goes into effect, plastic microbeads in cosmetic products will have been phased out because of the stewardship efforts by their manufacturers. He intends to work at adding language to the federal legislation that would ban not just sale but also manufacture of microbeads in personal care products, an endeavor that Upton has indicated he will support.

“I think so because the public is starting to be more aware that there are natural alternatives such as walnuts that can be used instead of synthetic plastic,” Pallone said, adding that public awareness coupled with the manufacture and sale ban will make this bill effective.

According to Noelle Clemente, spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the bill's effectiveness lies in crafting language in concert with all stakeholders—the wastewater utilities, states, industry and environmental groups.

The federal bill seeks to eliminate altogether the use of these non-biodegradable microbeads that are made either of polyethylene or polypropylene.

No Documented Damage, Council Says 

The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), though quick to note that no environmental damage has been documented from microbead pollution, supports the bill's concept. The council has reiterated that it favors a phaseout of microbeads in cosmetic products and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.

“The alternatives our industry is considering using would all be expected to biodegrade in natural environments,” including natural and marine-based environments, Ian Davies, the council's senior environmental chemist, told Bloomberg BNA in written responses.

The PCPC represents about 600 companies that manufacture and distribute the vast majority of cosmetic and personal care products marketed in the country. Johnson & Johnson counts among their members and like the council supports the concept of a biodegradable alternative in lieu of microbeads.

It remains to be seen whether the federal bill will conform to the PCPC-backed language that Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey and Wisconsin have adopted. Connecticut and Maryland have slight variations in the language to ban the manufacture and sale of personal care products containing microbeads. Maryland allows biodegradable alternatives but has been the only state to define them.

Connecticut was the first state to prohibit the manufacture and sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads, regardless of their capacity to biodegrade, according to Blake Kopcho, campaign manager for the nonprofit 5 Gyres that advocates for banning these goods entirely.

The Connecticut law, however, provides a certification process that allows the industry to replace traditional plastic microbeads with synthetic alternatives if an independent study (in this case performed by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering) determines that the alternative “does not adversely impact the environment or publicly owned treatment works in [the] state,” Kopcho said.

In contrast, the Maryland law allows biodegradable alternatives that degrade in marine environments and during wastewater treatment processes. The law also allows biodegradable alternatives that are developed following guidelines established by American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), International Organization for Standardization, or any other comparable organization.

Out of all of the state laws, “the Connecticut law closes the loophole found in industry-friendly bans passed in several states including Indiana, Colorado and Maine that allows consumer care companies to replace traditional plastic microbeads with other types of pernicious plastics,” Kopcho said. “Despite significant opposition from Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble, we are one step away from passing a responsible, loophole-free ban in California,” which would also ban the use of biodegradeable alternatives, he added.

But the catch is that biodegradable alternatives to microbeads don't really exist, Kate Hudson, cross watershed initiatives director for Riverkeeper Inc., told Bloomberg BNA.

What Does Biodegradable Mean?

In interviews with Bloomberg BNA, environmentalists, researchers and wastewater officials say a complete ban on the manufacture and sale of products with microbeads is needed because research has shown they act as sponges for more toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors, such as mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and bisphenol A or BPA, among others.

More importantly, they say microbeads are now being found not only in waters but also in fish. They worry that microbeads will bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms and potentially move up the food chain, affecting people who eat the fish that feed on these organisms.

Advocates for a ban are concerned that legislation that fails to define biodegradable, but allows biodegradable alternatives to microbeads, is a “non-starter” and would be unenforceable.

With the exception of Connecticut and Maryland, the remaining six states have adopted bans allowing the industry to use biodegradable alternatives without defining what those are. California's ban would be similar to Connecticut's and would prohibit the use of biodegradable alternatives. The Golden State would, if enacted, allow natural alternatives, such as oatmeal, sea salt and apricot pits.

Maryland straddles the line because it has allowed the use of biodegradable plastics, but has defined them to mean compostable plastics. Hudson and other environmental advocates say Maryland’s definition of biodegradable is a hard standard to meet, because few landfills are engineered in such a way as to allow composting of plastic microbeads.

Moreover, “whether or not microbeads are ‘compostable' in a landfill seems irrelevant to whether they would biodegrade in an aquatic environment where cold water temperatures would severely inhibit if not preclude, both compostability and biodegradability,” said Hudson of Riverkeeper.

Most important to Hudson is that partial degradation of plastics will not solve the plastic problem. “It will just result in breaking the microbeads up into smaller pieces. The plastic pollution will still be in our waterways,” she said.

More disconcerting to environmental advocates is that these six states have placed the burden on prosecutors to prove that the microbeads are biodegradable, according to Hudson.

“It is unenforceable because the state or local prosecutor has to prove that the changed ingredient is a non-biodegradable plastic,” said Hudson. She added that it is “a high burden of proof” that requires long, drawn-out scientific studies that local governments can ill afford to conduct. In fact, the proof of biodegradability should be on the manufacturers.

Moreover, any plastic that degrades under any condition can be used in the absence of a standard for biodegradable microbeads in the aquatic environments.

“This amounts to a loophole that makes these state bans ineffective,” Ed Gottlieb, industrial pretreatment coordinator for Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility in New York, told Bloomberg BNA.

“With a federal plastic microbead ban under development, we must let our representatives know that a bill with the biodegradable loophole is pure greenwash: Sounds good, does nothing, ” Gottlieb who also is the chair of the Coalition for Safe Medication Disposal, said. “We must demand an effective ban on all plastic microbeads. For any exemption, the producer must be required to prove their product will not cause harm.”

Microbeads Not Biodegradable

Environmental Chemistry Professor Sherri Mason, with the State University of New York at Fredonia, said microbeads made from traditional plastic do not biodegrade at all.

Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute, said only those made from cellulose or other renewable sources can biodegrade faster than plastic, but only in commercial composting facilities where higher temperatures and higher levels of oxygen and moisture can be maintained to facilitate microbial breakdown.

Johnson & Johnson, however, told Bloomberg BNA in a statement that it is phasing out and will eliminate the use of polyethylene microbeads in personal care products by the end of 2017.

“We have stopped developing new products containing polyethylene microbeads and have been conducting environmental safety assessments of other alternatives. In fact, we have already reformulated some products which now contain jojoba wax exfoliates. Our environmental safety assessments are part of our ‘informed substitution' approach, which helps ensure that the alternatives we choose are safe and environmentally sound, and that they provide consumers with a great experience. Our goal is to complete the first phase of reformulations by the end of 2015, which represents about half our products sold that contain microbeads,” the company said.

Proctor & Gamble made a similar pledge.

Before alternatives begin to enter the market, all of these biodegradable materials would need to meet internationally recognized test standards, such as those adopted by the OECD, ASTM International, or other equivalent, Davies also told Bloomberg BNA.

Skeptical of State, Federal Bans

Not everyone is on board with the idea of regulating personal care products containing microbeads.

G. Allen Burton Jr., a professor with the Natural Resources and Environment and Earth and Environmental Sciences departments at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, questions the need for federal or state legislation in the absence of any evidence of risk from exposure from microbead pollution in water. Davies with the PCPC also questions the emphasis on microbeads in personal care products.

“Banning microbeads is not getting at the true problem,” Burton, who also is the editor-in-chief of the international peer-reviewed Journal of Environment Toxicology, told Bloomberg BNA.

Federal and state lawmakers haven't acted this quickly on any other number of significant stressors in the Great Lakes and other waters that are adversely affecting fish and other aquatic life, such as nutrient runoff that leads to algae blooms and fish kills, and metals contamination, he said.

Burton and Davies say microbeads are a “minor” contributor to pollution in the aquatic environment and point to microplastics as a whole, which include microbeads, as a significant problem.

Microplastics are defined in scientific literature as fibers, films, fragments or granular particles smaller than 5 millimeters in size and made of synthetic polymers, such as polyethylene. Fragments or shards arise from the breakdown of plastic cups, beverage bottles, bags, utensils, plates and other larger products. Worldwide monitoring has shown that fragmented microplastics exist in all oceans today, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Davies cited a March survey published in the International Journal for Applied Science showing plastic microbeads in cosmetics account for 0.1 percent to 1.5 percent of the plastic debris found in the marine environment. He also questioned whether the “perfectly round spheres” are microbeads originating from cosmetics or from other industries that also use these products.

As microbeads are such a minor contributor to aquatic pollution, Davies questioned whether it even makes sense to reformulate cosmetics.

More than 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing more than 250 million tons is afloat at sea. Of this amount, 93 percent is microplastics, according to Marcus Eriksen, research director and cofounder of 5 Gyres whose paper estimating the extent of plastic pollution was published Dec. 10, 2014, in the online PLOS One journal. PLOS stands for the Public Library of Science, and it is a nonprofit that promotes open access to scientific research.

Microbeads, Ubiquitous?

First synthesized in 1978 by Norwegian scientist John Ugelstad, the microscopic plastic particles, known then as “Ugelstad spheres,” found uses in treatment of HIV, cancer research and development of flat screen televisions. During the past decade, these Ugelstad spheres, now known as microbeads, have been used not only in personal care products, but as abrasives for removing paints.

Microbeads are becoming ubiquitous in the nation's waters due to their use in about 100 types of personal care products across the country. Researchers led by Mason have identified microbeads by their distinct spherical shape, color, and their lower density than the other microplastic fragments, in all five Great Lakes. They also have found them in the wastewater effluent sampled from up to 35 treatment plants across New York state.

Between 2012 and 2014, Mason and her team, which included Eriksen of 5 Gyres, trawled the Great Lakes uncovering 7,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer in Lake Superior and Lake Huron, 17,000 pieces in Lake Michigan, 46,000 in Lake Erie and 248,000 in Lake Ontario. Of those amounts, the team identified 75 percent on average as microplastics. More importantly though, and surprising, 15 percent to 20 percent of the microplastics found in the Great Lakes were identified as microbeads, a finding that Mason said is not small or insignificant. The study was published in December 2013 in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Mason also served as the technical adviser to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation that commissioned a study of wastewater effluent from some 33 treatment plants across New York. That study too found that microbeads made up nearly three-fourths of the microplastics passing through.

A survey of the San Francisco estuary also uncovered samples containing fragments of microbeads and other forms of microplastics.

Mason is in the process of publishing a study that provides evidence of microbeads in 25 species of fish, including perch and trout, found in the lakes. Her study was prompted by seeing at least 10 people bringing in their fish haul for dinner every night for their families. She wondered whether those fish contain levels of the plastic they found in the Great Lakes.

“We actually started with fish obtained from ice fishermen. We kept the guts, they ate the fish,” said Mason whose team found some form of microplastic, whether it be microfibers or microbeads, in every species of fish that they examined.

“If it's in the fish, it's in us,” Mason said. That study, which is undergoing peer review, is due to be published early next year in the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

Burton remains unpersuaded by the findings or the impending study.

“Showing something is present in the environment is not the same as showing that organisms are adversely affected,” he said.

“It takes 1,000 liters of water to get exposure to three microbeads,” he said. He questioned whether the toxic chemicals that microbeads admittedly adsorb pose a threat to either the fish or the microscopic organisms.

“There are billions more algae for organisms to feed on as opposed to microbeads,” Burton said.

More Studies Needed

Mason agreed that more studies are needed to evaluate the extent of harm arising from the fish consumption of microbeads, and also to characterize the sources of microplastics including microbeads. She said she is currently working on a study of 29 tributaries feeding the Great Lakes to find out how the microplastics, including the microbeads and fibers, are getting into the waters. “Are they entering through stormwater runoff or through combined sewer overflows or treatment plants?” she said.

Melody LaBella, pollution prevention coordinator for the Martinez, Calif.-based Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, said it is disingenuous to dismiss the accumulation of microbeads in water because there is no proof of harm yet.

“Who will study that plastics harm humans, the plastics industry? No. Who will pay for the studies, the plastic industry? Not likely,” LaBella said.

Davies said the personal care products industry is environmentally conscious and supports reasonable legislation with pragmatic deadlines.

“We also take great interest in legitimate scientific research intended to better identify the sources and scope of plastic microbeads found in the environment,” he said.

Burton reiterates that the push for banning microbeads is nothing but a really good advocacy strategy chosen by the environmental groups.

Those groups are not shy about admitting that they have chosen to target microbeads because it is an easy fix, a low-hanging fruit that can be tackled easily. “Why not?” asks Hudson.

Eriksen, of 5 Gyres, said the strategy is to have the biggest impact, starting with California, which represents the largest market in the U.S.

“We have a two pronged-strategy aimed at both the state-by-state level as well as federal level,” Eriksen said.

He said it is easier to get rid of a product from the market that has been found in our waterways than it is to go by the environmental law route that would require years and years of study.

“This product is the low hanging fruit. We can get this out of the water, out of the ocean and out of our mouth and off our faces,” Eriksen said.

Preempting Harm

Wastewater utility officials, some scientists and environmental advocates say it is better to preempt environmental harm by preventing these plastic beads from making their way into the nation's waters where they can be ingested by fish and other aquatic species. They say preventing these beads from entering the drains is preferable to spending millions of dollars in installing costly equipment at the wastewater treatment plants.

The EPA also has said it has no immediate plans to tackle microbead pollution through the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act doesn't apply to wastewater released from individual homes and apartment buildings. The statute only applies to discharges from industrial or municipal wastewater facilities.

“There are no EPA regulations addressing microplastics or microbeads under the Agency’s statutory authorities,” the EPA told Bloomberg BNA. The agency's focus is on the much larger issue of microplastics because the states already have taken the lead on handling microbead pollution.

On the microplastics front though, the EPA said it is focusing on voluntary activities through its Trash-Free Waters program that focuses on outreach, education and partnerships with local communities to prevent trash, including plastic garbage, from getting into lakes, rivers, estuaries and oceans.

Prevention Better than Regulation

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents publicly owned wastewater utilities, and environmental groups such as 5 Gyres and Riverkeeper contend that microbeads are showing up increasingly in large water bodies, such as the Great Lakes and the San Francisco Bay. They all agree with Burton that more studies are needed to pin down the actual environmental harm but disagree that no action should be taken to reduce the growing menace of plastic pollution.

“It's better to get chemicals out of products in the first place than try to remove them at the tailpipe,” Cynthia Finley, NACWA regulatory affairs director said, especially chemicals that are not benefiting anyone.

Like triclosan, the chemical used in hand sanitizer, microbeads have no real benefit or value, Finley said. She agrees with LaBella who calls both triclosan and microbeads a “marketing gimmick” with little to no benefit.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in his May report, “Unseen Threat: How Microbeads Harm New York Water, Wildlife, Health and Environment,” said plastic is not an essential ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products and can be replaced with natural biodegradable alternatives, such as oatmeal.

LaBella said the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District cannot capture the microbeads that are easily passing through unless it spends at least a $100 million at each treatment plant to install a specially designed advanced filtration system in combination with a fine micro-screen. The best and most economical solution for California and other states is to engage in pollution prevention at the source, she said.

“Plastics are getting into the environment, adsorbing toxics. We don’t have want to have another Cuyahoga River on fire. We want to catch the stuff before it is a environmental disaster,” said LaBella, who also is co-chair of NACWA's emerging contaminants workgroup and chairman of the California Water Environment Association government affairs committee. “I want to control it at the source.”

Given the drought conditions in California, LaBella said the state can't afford to waste precious water resources.

“We want to keep that water as clean as we can so we can reuse it on the other side,” she added.

‘Plastic in Our Waters.'

Burton, who is quick to point out that his views are his own and not endorsed by any industry, agrees that “no one wants plastic in their waters,” but said legislation tackling microplastics, including microfibers coming off clothing and anti-fouling paint chips, is perhaps the path forward, rather than pursuing what he terms a “nonexistent” problem of microbead pollution.

Mason of SUNY-Fredonia is aware that tackling microbeads in personal products won't solve the much larger problem of plastic pollution, but she said it will significantly affect what they find in the waters. Either way, “20 percent less plastic is 20 percent less plastic,” she said.

She agrees that microplastics is the problem but disagrees with Burton that microbeads should be ignored in favor of more pressing environmental concerns

“Do we really want to be washing our faces and brushing our teeth with plastic,” Mason said.

“Banning microbeads at least will set the stage for us to tackle the larger issue in pieces. Microbeads serve as a starting point. Maybe if we can get beads banned and people realize the world doesn't end we can then start working on other plastic items like bags and bottles,” she said.

Using Precautionary Principle

The U.S., she said, needs to adopt the “common sense” precautionary principle that is used in the Europe and Canada where an industry has to establish that a chemical can cause no environmental harm before it is taken up by the market.

“It is what people expect when going to the store, that any product, any chemical, they are buying to bring into their home, to apply to their bodies, to introduce to their kids has been tested, that it is known to do no harm before it can be sold,” she said. “People automatically assume that is what we are operating under already, but it is the exact opposite.”

She said the U.S. should follow the example of Canada, which on July 31 proposed adding microbeads to the list of toxic substances. On the same day, Environment Canada announced plans to develop regulations to prohibit the manufacture, import, sale and offer for sale of microbead-containing personal care products used to exfoliate or cleanse.

The European Union also is considering action in response to requests from countries, including Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

The New York Attorney General report, “Unseen Threat: How Microbeads Harm New York Water, Wildlife, Health and Environment,” is available at

The House bill, Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 (H.R. 1321), is available at

The Senate bill (S. 1424) is available at

The microbead study that appeared in the Marine Pollution Bulletin is available at