I Don’t Want No Scrub

This article was originally published by OnEarth magazine

New York legislators want to be the first in the country to address a teensy tiny problem: plastic microbeads found in cosmetic products. This week, the state’s attorney general and a state assemblyman introduced a bill that would ban the sale and manufacture of any face wash, toothpaste, soap, or exfoliant that contains these microscopic spheres that slip through water filtration plants and into waterways.

Last year scientists reported finding tens of millions of microbeads bobbing to the surface in Lake Erie (see “Don’t Lather, Don’t Rinse, Don’t Repeat”). The plastic balls pollute water and potentially poison fish and other wildlife that mistake the colorful orbs for food.

“From the Great Lakes to the Hudson River to Long Island Sound, our commitment to protecting and restoring New York’s waters is among our most important responsibilities,” says Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

A number of companies that make the 200-plus products that contain these microbeads—including Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson—have already volunteered to take them out. But that’s not enough, argues 5 Gyres, an organization that combats plastic pollution in waterways. The group worked with the lawmakers on the bill and is planning on rolling out this legislative model in other places. A California assemblyman who collaborated with the organization plans to introduce a bill banning the sale of microbeads today.

“We’re not looking at a one-state strategy,” Stiv J. Wilson, 5 Gyre's policy director, tells the New York Times. “This is the alpha, not the omega.” For those of you who don’t speak Greek, he’s saying microbead bans are only getting started.

Last November, an organization that represents 100 U.S. and Canadian cities around the Great Lakes called for federal organizations to do something about the microbeads, which are only a fraction of a millimeter in diameter. But this is the first step any level of government has taken to address the issue.

These itsy bitsy plastic pieces aren’t the biggest threat to our water, but they do pose problems. Toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can glom onto the microbeads. When fish eat them, the plastic balls get stuck in their digestive tracts and the fish absorb the PCBs into their tissues. (Then guess what happens when we eat those fish?) Further, there's some evidence that when aquatic organisms eat plastic, it fools them into thinking they're full, so they eat less real food and don't grow as much, as indicated by a study done on mussels.

So … how do you know if your beauty routine is adding to the gazillions of beads washing into our waterways? Steer clear of products that have the words “polyethylene” and “polypropylene” on their labels, and download the “Beat the Microbead” app to make sure that what you’re buying is safe—for both you and your scaly-skinned neighbors.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.