The Plastic Microbead Loophole


Wisconsin recently joined the growing number of states that have passed bans on plastic microbeads in personal care products (PCPs).  Unfortunately, the Wisconsin law, along with other proposed state laws, contains a major loophole that benefits the plastics and cosmetics industries at the expense of the environment and human health. 

The movement to ban microbeads in PCPs is primarily driven by their ability to collect and concentrate pharmaceuticals and other pollutants which then enter the food chain when the beads are eaten by aquatic organisms. 

In response to the ban the bead movement, the plastics industry has been successfully pushing state legislatures to adopt bans using wording that they wrote rather than wording promoted by environmental groups.  The industry version has two provisions that make it very objectionable to anyone wanting an effective ban.  It is the plastics industry version that Governor Walker just signed into law.

The law only applies to, "non-biodegradable, solid plastic" [299.50 Sec 1(e)].  With "non-biodegradable" left undefined, it can, and will, be argued that the plastics used (or the bio-polymers they could switch to) are biodegradable.  But, under what conditions do they biodegrade? 

It has been reported that the biodegradable plastics now available require composting at high temperatures to break down.  They do not biodegrade in the natural environment.  California is now considering a ban on biodegradable microbeads in PCP!  For a detailed explanation of this point, read these recent stories about the proposed bills in California and Washington

The Wisconsin law also includes an industry written ban on local communities enacting legislation [Sec 4]:  "A political subdivision may not enact an ordinance or adopt a resolution concerning the manufacture, sale, or distribution of products containing synthetic plastic microbeads."

This law is a total win for the manufactures and polluters, allowing them to continue their activities while locking out effective local legislation.

A review of bills currently being considered by Connecticut, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington shows how common the biodegradable loophole is in proposed legislation.  When your state legislators consider a ban on plastic microbeads in PCP, please be sure to lobby for a bill that does not include the non-biodegradable loop-hole or a ban on local action.  


Ed Gottlieb is the Chair of the Coalition for Safe Medication Disposal in Tompkins County, NY and also serves as the Industrial Pretreatment Coordinator at the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility, Ithaca, NY. 

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