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4 States Working to Ban Microbeads

4 States Working to Ban Microbeads

There are currently numerous state bills introduced around the country focused on curbing marine plastic pollution. One notably popular subject this session is that of microbeads, which are teeny tiny bits of plastic put in consumer products such as toothpastes and facial scrubs, which (likely unbeknownst to consumers!) wash down the drain, are frequently not captured by wastewater treatment facilities (because they’re too small, do not biodegrade, and float), simply pass through wastewater treatment facilities, and eventually enter our waterways and pollute our oceans. These microplastics are found in all ocean gyres, bays, gulfs and seas around the world.

Microplastics are found in all ocean gyres, bays, gulfs and seas around the world. Photo credit: Surfrider Foundation

This is problematic for a multitude of reasons. First, plastic does not biodegrade into elements or compounds commonly found in nature like other organic materials, but instead, photodegrades into smaller pieces of plastic causing pollution that is virtually impossible to remediate. Second, microplastic debris absorbs toxic, environmentally persistent chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, PAHs, and flame retardants found in our waterways. In 2011, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association found that plastic debris accumulates pollutants such as PCBs up to 100,000 to 1,000,000 times the levels found in seawater.

Thus, aside from the negative effects of plastic consumption by marine life such as intestinal clogging and starvation, fish can become contaminated by the plastic’s absorbed toxins, which bioaccumulate up the food chain.  These toxins pose dangerous threats to humans and wildlife who consume them. Microplastics? Megaproblem.

Currently, there are at least 15 microbead bills pending at various stages across the country. Below is a sampling of some of these bills. While, as explained below, Surfrider Foundation has concerns associated with some of the bills, Surfrider is hopeful that states will carefully draft bills that will address the very serious threats that microplastic pollution poses to our coastal resources and water quality.

Connecticut

Connecticut currently has four microbeads bills in the works: House Bill (H.B.) 6081, H.B. 5206,H.B. 5403, and H.B. 5727. On March 10, 2015, Surfrider Foundation submitted testimony to the Joint Committee on the Environment supporting the bills, with amendments. Surfrider’s concerns with the bills primarily focus on any exceptions or exemptions for “over the counter” drugs or “biodegradable” particles. First, there must not be any exemptions for over the counter products, as this creates a huge industry loophole, rendering any microbeads ban futile, since the number of over the counter drugs is incredibly broad, and contains numerous types of products such as fluoride and whitening toothpastes, acne scrubs, moisturizing cleansers, and wrinkle creams, which are the exact kinds of products which typically utilize microbeads. Secondly, any exemptions for biodegradable particles are concerning, because “biodegradable” can be a misleading term. Any microbead legislation should only include a biodegradable exception if the term is carefully defined in a way to ensure that only products which are truly able to break down into natural elements in the marine environment or in wastewater treatment are considered biodegradable.

Hawaii

Recently, on March 18, Surfrider Foundation submitted testimony in strong support of Hawaii’s microbead bill, H.B. 621, with amendments, to the Energy and Environment Committee, and Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee. The bill gradually (i.e. between December 31, 2017 and December 31, 2019) phases in the prohibition on the manufacture and sale of personal care products that contain “synthetic plastic microbeads.” “Synthetic plastic microbead” means any intentionally added non-biodegradable solid plastic particle measuring less than five millimeters in size and used to exfoliate or cleanse in a rinse-off product. Violations are punishable by civil penalties up to $1,000 for a first violation, and up to $2,500 for subsequent violations.

As noted above, this microbead definition, which excludes “non-biodegradable” particles is potentially problematic. Thus, the Surfrider Foundation proposed in its testimony that the legislators must either remove the vague, misleading term “non-biodegradable” in the definition of “synthetic plastic microbead” and replace it with “non-compostable,” or define “biodegradable” as “capable of decomposing back into natural elements.”

Oregon

Similarly, in Oregon, H.B. 3478 was first read March 2, 2015, and was referred to the Energy and Environment Committee March 9, 2015. The bill phases in the prohibition on the manufacture and sale of personal care products and over the counter drugs that contain synthetic plastic microbeads. Currently, the definition of “synthetic plastic microbead” means “a solid plastic particle that a manufacturer intentionally incorporates into a personal care product and that: (A) Measures less than five millimeters in diameter; (B) Is not biodegradable; (C) The manufacturer intends as a method for exfoliating skin or otherwise cleaning the human body; and (D) The manufacturer intends for the consumer to rinse off from the body after use.  Thus, the definition excludes particles which are “biodegradable.” As noted above, this is potentially vague and problematic, and any microbead legislation should ensure that the ban applies to all microplastic particles, and that only products which are truly able to break down into natural elements are excepted. The Surfrider Foundation, on behalf of the Oregon Surfrider Foundation Chapter Network, and the individual Oregon chapters have expressed these concerns in personal letters to their state legislators, and Surfrider Foundation staff will be participating in a work group on this bill in the future.

Washington

Meanwhile, Washington’s microbead bill, Senate Bill (S.B.) 5609 passed the Senate unanimously on March 11, 2015. In the House, the bill had its first reading and was referred to the House Committee on the Environment on March 13. The Committee recently held a public hearing on the bill on March 23, 2015.

Unfortunately, S.B. 5609 passed the Senate with a potential “biodegradable” loophole, similar to Hawaii and Oregon’s microbeads bills. The definition of the banned “synthetic plastic microbead” excludes biodegradable particles (i.e., synthetic plastic microbead means “an intentionally added nonbiodegradable solid plastic particle measuring less than five millimeters in size and used to exfoliate or cleanse in a rinse-off product”), which, again, could be problematic without further clarifying what is biodegradable and what is nonbiodegradable.

The Surfrider Foundation will continue to monitor these, and other proposed microbeads bills, and bring awareness to these issues such that legislators will be encouraged to craft effective bills that serve their intended purposes.  Go here for more information on the dangers of marine plastic pollution, and on Surfrider Foundation’s Rise Above Plastics campaign. Visit 5 Gyres I Want Plastic Off My Face information page to learn how you can get involved.

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In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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