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Microbeads: Water's Tiny Trash Problem

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Microbeads are often mistaken for food sources by fish, which digest them along with the toxins that they carry | Photo: 5 Gyres
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A segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" is based on this story. Watch it here now.

Walk a few miles along the Los Angeles River and there's a good chance you would happen across a plastic bag, a stray water bottle, or even a tangled supermarket cart. It only takes a good storm to wash up the river's debris for all to see.

Every year Angelenos from all around the city help curb this sad sight, but even they cannot get to everything, especially when we're talking about plastic beads that almost look like small bubbles on the water's surface.

Microbeads are non-biodegradable pieces of plastic less than one millimeter in diameter. You might not be aware of it, but you've seen these in your toothpaste, facial cleansers, body washes, and all sorts of common products. Once used, these beads are washed down our system and are often not captured by our sewage and water treatment systems.

Having passed through the city's water cleaning process, they are then released into waterways where they do not biodegrade and instead absorb toxins such as DDT, PCBs, and other chemicals. These little beads are often mistaken for food sources by fish, which digest them along with the toxins that they carry. Those fish, in turn, introduce these toxins into our food chain system and perhaps eventually even in our bodies.

As researcher Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of 5 Gyres, an organization aimed at reducing plastics pollution, told the Los Angeles Times, as much as 80 percent of microbeads come from coastal watersheds like Los Angeles. Eriksen's demonstration proved that the Los Angeles River was no exemption. In just ten minutes, Eriksen's small net just two feet wide was able to capture a noticeable collection of microbeads on the confluence of the Los Angeles River and Arroyo Seco.

In response to the 5 Gyres findings, the Bureau of Sanitation began researching this issue. According to Donna Toy-Chen, Assistant Division Manager from the Bureau of Sanitation's Watershed Protection Division, as she told to KCET, "Testing has indicated that microbeads are not present in the flow leaving the Donald Tillman plant, in the cloth filters in the final stages of treatment, or in the Los Angeles River."

Toy-Chen's assurances however do not negate the issue at hand, which is why California State Assemblyman Richard Bloom has been working with the non-profit 5 Gyres on legislation that holds companies to their promise of removing microbeads from their products. "Microbeads have only been around for the last decade. There's significant indications that the L.A. River is affected and there's evidence that it's already finding their way to our aquifers," says Bloom.

The bill, AB 1699, nips the problem in the bud by prohibiting the sale of personal care products with microbeads starting January 2016. It would also impose a penalty of up to $2,500 each day past this deadline. The money collected from these fines would go toward a plastic pollution fund. Essentially, the bill gives legs to many manufacturer promises of phasing out these plastic beads in their products.

Unfortunately Bloom's bill failed to get off the senate floor, with just one vote shy. Bloom says it was difficult because "industry kept moving the goal post on the bill. It became very clear that over the course of negotiations, every time we compromised on an issue, another issue would be raised."

The last straw however was the industry's proposal to exempt a biodegradeable plastic microbead, a product that does not yet exist. "There is no such product that exists today. It would be virtually impossible to legislate a product that we don't know yet," says Bloom.

Despite the setback, Bloom isn't deterred. He is still planning to re-introduce the legislation come December, when the first legislative session begins. Given the legislation close call, he is confident it would pass the second time around.

In the meantime, river enthusiasts would be well advised simply to purchase products free of such plastic. Here's a short list of products with plastic microbeads.

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