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Personal Care Products Containing Microbeads Could be Off Shelves by 2020 in California

Everyday products such as toothpaste often contain microbeads, non biodegradable plastic that ends up in oceans, lakes, and rivers.
Everyday products such as toothpaste often contain microbeads, non biodegradable plastic that ends up in oceans, lakes, and rivers.

Plastic microbeads typically found in everyday products such as toothpaste and exfoliating scrubs could soon be swept clean from California shelves by 2020.

Last Friday, the state assembly passed legislation that would ban microbeads -- small pieces of plastic containing the ingredient polyethylene -- from being used in personal care products such as body wash, shampoo, and facial scrubs.

If enacted and passed, AB 888 would be the strongest microbead law in the nation, according to Sue Vang, policy analyst for Californians Against Waste, an environmental advocacy organization that sponsored the California bill.

An individual personal care product can contain as much as 350,000 microbeads, according to Vang. The tiny plastic particles are able to easily escape wastewater treatment facilities and make its way into the stomachs of fish and other animals, while polluting oceans, rivers, lakes, and other ecosystems.

"While we have much more work to do to get AB 888 through the Senate and ultimately signed by Governor Brown, the bill has the potential to become the strongest microbead legislation in the county," a spokesperson for Assemblymember Richard Bloom, the bill's author, wrote in an email. Biodegradable alternatives would include ground apricot shells and cocoa beans -- many of which are already being used by some manufacturers, they added.

38 tons of microbeads are used by Californians annually, according to Vang. Californians Against Waste are confident AB 888 will soon become law, despite the bill's failed attempt last year in the Senate. "Our coalition has been working hard this year to prevent that from happening again," she said.

Companies like L'Oreal and Johnson & Johnson have declared their commitment to phasing out microbeads from its personal care products by 2017. Other companies like Target Corporation and Proctor and Gamble (which owns brands such as Crest and Oral-B), have also declared their commitment toward phasing out microbeads.

Despite those commitments, none have actually disclosed or guaranteed that they will move to a safer alternative, said Blake Kopcho, campaign manager for 5 Gyres, a nonprofit dedicated to researching and eliminating plastic pollution in oceans.

"Johnson & Johnson has come out publicly stating that the California bill is overly restrictive. So it's true, while they're committed to phasing out polyethylene microbeads, it's unclear what they want to move to," explained Kopcho, adding that many of the bans in other states -- Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, for example -- "all have a loophole that allows for biodegradable plastics to replace traditional microbeads polyethylene."

A study by Kopcho's organization found that more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating around in the world's ocean. He said it found that over 90 percent of oceans were filled with microplastics that measured less than 5 millimeters.

"We can't wrap our heads around how much plastic that is," he explained. "When the bathtub is overflowing, the first thing to do is turn off the faucet. So we need to stop the flow of plastics into the ocean from the source."

KCET's news magazine "SoCal Connected" explored microbeads in an in-depth segment earlier this year. Watch it here.

AB 888 now heads to the State Senate before going to the governor.

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