Tiny Plastics Register On States' Policy Radar

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Some Great Lakes states are taking a legislative microscope to items like toothpaste and facial scrub, which sometimes contain microplastics -- small, round plastics that can be less than a millimeter in diameter.

The substance is an abrasive that is used to assist in scrubbing. It works like a salt scrub, but can be made clear or colored, which makes it desirable for certain types of soap.

So what's the problem? Many wastewater treatment plants are ill equipped to filter out these small of particles and they end up in water sources, including the Great Lakes.

Illinois officially became the first Great Lakes state to ban the bits this month, and bills on the subject have been introduced in Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Minnesota, California and New York.

Rep. Terry BROWN (D-Pigeon) is the sponsor of Click to track bill HB 4994, which would bar manufacturers from adding plastic particles to personal care products in 2015 and bars people from selling products containing those beads in 2016. It's been sitting in the House Regulatory Reform Committee since September 2013, but Brown said the Illinois legislation is renewing interest.

"We've been hearing from more and more groups, especially I think because of the Illinois thing. I think other groups are saying 'Illinois, why not us?'" Brown said.

Big industry players have promised to self-regulate on this, Brown said, which has fueled the hesitation to make the bill law.

But James CLIFT of the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) said that relying on industry means out-of-country manufacturers will likely be selling products containing microplastics at discount stores. He said that happened with mercury thermometers, which U.S. companies stopped making but "we were still seeing them come in from overseas."

Sarah OPFER, Great Lakes regional coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Marine Debris Program, said some published research on microplastics came to NOAA's attention in 2007.

"The NOAA Marine Debris Program thought that it was worth pulling together the international science community to begin to share information and learn more about the issue, and thus held the International Research Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects, and Fate of Microplastic Marine Debris in 2008," Opfer said.

She looks at debris more generally, and said that plastics under 5 millimeters are often considered microplastics.

"There's an ingestion concern, there's a habitat concern, there's other types of debris that cause entanglement concerns," Opfer said.

University of Michigan Research Scientist Melissa DUHAIME is leading a study on microplastics in Lake Erie this summer, collecting microplastics from both the surface and columns of the water. A team will catalogue the shape and size of the items collected, as well as look at things clinging to the plastics such as bacteria, algae and possibly contaminants. There may also be organisms ingesting the tiny plastics.

"Those are the kinds of things that we can then model across an entire food web and determine whether or not there are ramifications across the entire Great Lakes ecosystem," Duhaime said.

Studies on microplastics in the ocean and organisms there suggest that ingestion could be a serious problem.

"If you feed them plastic then they effectively starve, because they're eating things that they think are food but they're not getting nutrition from them," Duhaime said.

The data Duhaime collects will be compiled to create a risk assessment that could be a future policy tool.

"The goal of the project itself is effectively to produce something to deliver to policymakers, really," Duhaime said.

Opfer said there are studies being done outside of the Great Lakes on microplastics as well.

"We have several studies underway. There's a lot of interest and momentum on the topic so I think we'll see a lot of information coming out in the near future," Opfer said.

The issue is getting attention from America's neighbors to the North, as well. Canadian Member of Parliament Brian MASSE earlier this month called on the International Joint Commission to investigate microplastics in the Great Lakes.

Jack SCHMITT of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (MLCV) said that the quantity of microplastics in the Great Lakes is bringing up health and ecological concerns.

"We're finding more and more plastics accumulating in the stomachs of fish, and that starts to work its way up the food chain," Schmitt said.

Clift, of the MEC, said, "we're not quite sure yet kind of how they may impact wildlife."

But the MEC has started to receive some feelers from legislative offices on this issue, and is hopeful Michigan will follow suit and ban the bits, like Illinois.

"Clearly since it's one of these items which is not necessary at all, kind of a luxury item, it's a good idea to phase them out and get them out of the system as quickly as possible," Clift said.

Duhaime said wastewater treatment plants can prevent these beads from getting into the water.

"Cities like Ann Arbor, they do have a technology in place that should remove most of the personal care product size microbeads, and that's called sand filtration," Duhaime said.

But when it comes to retrofitting older wastewater treatment plants with similar technology, Duhaime said, "it's an issue of cost and feasibility, whether or not it's practical for them to be installed."

Director of the Office of the Great Lakes Jon ALLAN said they're monitoring what's happening on this issue in other states.

"We're encouraged by the industry's response to this, and it's something we're going to pay close attention to," Allan said.