Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today was joined by Long Island Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney in proposing first-in-the-nation legislation that bans a form of plastic pollution that is an emerging threat to New York’s Great Lakes and other bodies of water. The Attorney General’s Microbead-Free Waters Act will prohibit the sale in New York of beauty and cosmetic products that contain tiny plastic particles that are often marketed as microbeads. The plastic beads, which were recently found in alarmingly high levels in the New York waters of Lake Erie, can persist in the environment for centuries and accumulate toxic chemicals on their surface, threatening fish, wildlife and public health.
“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,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “New York’s environmental leadership continues today with the introduction of common-sense legislation that will stop the flow of plastic from ill-designed beauty products into our vital waters, preserving our natural heritage for future generations.”
The Microbead-Free Waters Act would prohibit the production, manufacture, distribution and sale in New York of any beauty product, cosmetic or other personal care product containing plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size. Microbeads are commonly found in more than 100 products, including facial scrubs, soaps, shampoo and toothpaste, where they replace ground walnut shells, sea salt, and other natural materials as an abrasive.
Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Robert K. Sweeney said, “When people learn more about this issue, they will be unwilling to sacrifice water quality just to continue to use products with plastic microbeads. I never met anyone who has wanted plastic on their face or in their fish. I want to thank Attorney General Schneiderman for partnering with me to take action on an issue that threatens to pollute our State's environmental treasures."
When products containing microbeads are used in the home, the beads are rinsed down the drain and into our sewer systems. Because of their small size and buoyancy, microbeads escape treatment by sewage plants and are discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans.
In 2012, a team of researchers that included scientists from the State University of New York at Fredonia discovered alarming levels of microbeads in the Great Lakes – with the highest concentrations recorded in the New York waters of Lake Erie. Half of all plastics collected on the surface of Lake Erie were the perfectly spherical, multi-colored beads identical to the microbeads used in beauty products. Other plastics collected included larger plastic litter that had broken down in the environment, such as detergent bottles and Styrofoam.
Once in the water, microbeads, like other plastics, can attract and accumulate certain toxic chemicals commonly found in waters across the state, and can be mistaken as food by small fish and wildlife. Scientific studies have shown that fish and wildlife of all sizes consume plastic. In addition, environmental pollution found in Great Lakes waters, such as PCBs (the industrial pollutants polychlorinated biphenyls), gravitate and attach to the surface of plastic. If fish and wildlife species low on the food chain eat these contaminated plastics, the chemicals might be passed on to larger birds, fish and other animals that people eat.
To date, the Great Lakes are the only New York open waters sampled for plastic pollution. However, microbeads in beauty products can pass through sewage treatment facilities in any part of the State, raising concerns about their introduction into other State waters.
Three leading beauty product manufacturers – Proctor and Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive – have all made recent commitments to phase out the use of microbeads in their products. Other companies, such as Burt’s Bees, have never used these plastics in their products. Consumers can determine if their beauty or personal care products contain microbeads by checking the product ingredient list for “polyethylene” or “polypropylene.”
New York State Senator Mark Grisanti said, “Protecting our Great Lakes - especially Lake Erie - goes hand in hand with revitalizing our waterfront. From Grand Island all the way to Brant, our waterfront is undergoing an incredible transformation. I support the concept of the Microbead-Free Waters Act and I believe it will keep dangerous plastic pollution out of our water and protect regional assets like the Great Lakes, which have become epicenters for economic development.”
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, a board member of The Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, said, “Once we became aware of this significant new pollution threat recently uncovered in the Great Lakes, The Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Cities Initiative took a strong stance that the flow of microbeads into our waters must stop. We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for spearheading this initiative, and we look forward to working alongside him to ensure that the future of the Great Lakes is microbead free.”
Mayor Keith Hobbs, of Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Chairman of the Cities Initiative, said, “We are moving forward with our actions to solve this problem, and these efforts in New York will be a big help in this important initiative.”
New York League of Conservation Voters President Marcia Bystryn said, “New York’s lakes and waterways are among our most beloved natural assets. This legislation will not only help protect them for future generations – it will also set an example for other states around the country to address this emerging environmental threat. We thank Attorney General Schneiderman for forging a common-sense, effective strategy to safeguard the natural resources that we all cherish and depend on.”
Peter Iwanowicz, Executive Director of Environmental Advocates of New York, said, “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. Plastic microbeads haven’t made a single New Yorker cleaner or more beautiful so their continued use is absurd. Environmental Advocates applauds Attorney General Schneiderman for proposing this legislation, and we urge its passage.”
Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter Conservation Director Roger Downs said, “Plastic pollution is insidious – it doesn’t degrade like natural materials and persists for decades, if not centuries in our environment. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has set the bar on holding the beauty products industry accountable, and we urge other states around Great Lakes basin, and across the country to follow New York’s leadership.”
5 Gyres Institute Dr. Marcus Eriksen, lead author on the paper reporting on the first ever open-water survey of the Great Lakes for plastic pollution, said, “We found more small plastic pieces in the Great Lakes than in the ocean garbage patches, and the majority were microbeads. The 5 Gyres Institute commends New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his global leadership in responding quickly to this emerging source of plastic pollution.”
Erin Crotty, Executive Director of Audubon New York and Vice President of the National Audubon Society, said, “Small plastics like microbeads pose a growing threat to many bird species that feed at the water’s surface. Many waterbirds mistake plastics for food -- or are susceptible to bioaccumulation of plastic in the fish they eat -- with detrimental effect, including decreased food-absorption and starvation. Audubon New York applauds New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his leadership and attention to the growing problem of plastic pollution, and the threat it poses to birds and people across the globe.”
Brian Smith, of Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), said, “Plastic microbeads that can accumulate toxic chemicals and be consumed by fish and wildlife are unnecessarily polluting New York’s treasured waters and threatening public health. CCE commends Attorney General Schneiderman for his leadership to protect the health of the Great Lakes and all New York waters by proactively addressing this emerging threat.”
Jill Jedlicka, Executive Director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said, “The emerging threat of microbead pollution has the potential to undermine the billions of dollars of public and private investment into our water-based economies and negatively impact the progress of Great Lakes restoration. We applaud Attorney General Schneiderman for demonstrating New York State's leadership on this issue in the Great Lakes, and for advancing legislation that will directly benefit the health of our waterways."
Paul Gallay, President of Riverkeeper, said, “Riverkeeper commends Attorney General Schneiderman and Assemblyman Sweeney for taking action to address the growing problem of micro bead pollution in New York’s waters. We have strived for decades to reclaim the Hudson River from its industrial, polluted past, and we have a cleaner, healthier river as a result. These plastic microbeads are an unnecessary and harmful product that do not belong in our waterways, and should be phased out of use as quickly as possible – this proposed law would be a precedent-setting first step in achieving this goal.”