Tiny beads used in facial scrubs, shampoos, soaps and toothpaste products would be banned under a measure drafted by the state attorney general to halt the spread of plastic pollution in New York waters.
Expected to be introduced Tuesday by Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), the Microbead-Free Waters Act would prohibit the production, manufacture, distribution and sale of beauty products that contain plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size.
The proposal was prompted by a 2012 study in the Great Lakes that found high concentrations of the plastic beads. Researchers believe the microbeads are so small they wash down drains, pass through sewage treatment plants and are discharged into fresh- and saltwater bodies.
"They're so small to the naked eye it almost looks like dust," said Stiv Wilson, an author of the study and policy director of Los Angeles-based 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on worldwide plastics pollution. "The smaller the size, the more sinister they actually are."
The plastic microbeads, commonly cited on ingredient lists as polyethylene or polypropylene, can absorb toxins, and, if eaten by fish, make it into the food chain.
"They're exactly the size of fish eggs, which makes it worse," Wilson said. "It doesn't look like a foreign object to marine life."
The researchers sampled lakes Superior, Huron and Erie. In Erie, they found as many as 466,000 microbeads per square kilometer. The confluence of tides and urban populations are likely the cause for the high concentration.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman called it an emerging threat that while discovered in the Great Lakes, could impact any waters where sewage is discharged. "From the Great Lakes to the Hudson River to Long Island Sound, our commitment to protecting and restoring New York's water is among our most important responsibilities," he said.
If passed, this would be the first legislation of its kind in the United States, his office said.
California is considering a similar measure, Wilson said.
Environmental Advocates of New York, a watchdog group, applauded the move. "It's easy to underestimate the harm that products like this cause, but no matter the shape or size of the plastic, it is still plastic we are flushing down the drain," executive director Peter Iwanowicz said. "Plastic microbeads haven't made a single New Yorker cleaner or more beautiful, so their continued use is absurd."
Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive all have made commitments to phase out microbeads in their products, Schneiderman's office said.
On its website, Unilever said it hoped to do so globally by 2015 because "we believe we can provide consumers with products that deliver a similar exfoliating performance without the need to use plastics."
Microbeads are used in more than 100 products, often replacing natural abrasives like sea salt and walnut shells.
"When people learn more about this issue, they will be unwilling to sacrifice water quality just to continue to use products with plastic microbeads," Sweeney said in a statement. "There are a number of natural alternatives to microbeads that will provide the results that consumers are looking for without diminishing our water quality."