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Banning Microbeads Offers Simple Solution to Protect Our Oceans
An outright ban on the common use of plastic "microbeads" from products that enter wastewater is the best way to protect water quality, wildlife and resources used by people, a group of conservation scientists suggest in a new analysis.
Microbeads are bits of plastic so small that hundreds of them would be needed to cover a single penny. Photo credit: 5Gyres
These microbeads are one part of the microplastic problem in oceans, freshwater lakes and rivers, but are a special concern because in many products they are literally designed to be flushed down the drain. And even at conservative estimates, the collective total of microbeads being produced today is enormous.
In an article just published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, scientists from seven institutions say that nontoxic and biodegradable alternatives exist for microbeads, which are used in hundreds of products as abrasive scrubbers, ranging from face washes to toothpaste. Around the size of a grain of sand, they can provide a gritty texture to products where that is needed.
"We're facing a plastic crisis and don't even know it," said Stephanie Green, the David H. Smith Conservation Research fellow in the College of Science at Oregon State University and co-author of this report.
"Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning," she said. "Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable."
In this analysis and using extremely conservative methodology, the researchers estimated that 8 trillion microbeads per day are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the U.S.—enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts a day. But the other 99 percent of the microbeads—another 800 trillion—end up in sludge from sewage plants, which is often spread over areas of land. Many of those microbeads can then make their way into streams and oceans through runoff.
Microplastic poses a growing concern in oceans and other aquatic habitat. Photo credit: 5Gyres
"Microbeads are just one of many types of microplastic found in aquatic habitats and in the gut content of wildlife," said Chelsea Rochman, the David H. Smith Conservation Research postdoctoral fellow at the University of California/Davis and lead author on the analysis.
"We've demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects," Rochman said. "We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products."
Even though microbeads are just one part of the larger concern about plastic debris that end up in oceans and other aquatic habitat, they are also one of the most controllable. With growing awareness of this problem, a number of companies have committed to stop using microbeads in their "rinse off" personal care products and several states have already regulated or banned the products.
The researchers point out in their analysis, however, that some bans have included loopholes using strategic wording. Many microbeads are used in personal care products that are not "rinse off," such as deodorants and cleaners. And some regulations use the term "biodegradable" to specify what products are allowed—but some microbeads can biodegrade just slightly, which may allow their continued use.
If legislation is sought, "new wording should ensure that a material that is persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic is not added to products designed to go down the drain," the researchers wrote in their report.
"The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high, while the solution to this problem is simple," they concluded.
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As a growing number of states move to pass laws that would criminalize pipeline protests and hit demonstrators with years in prison, an audio recording obtained by The Intercept showed a representative of a powerful oil and gas lobbying group bragging about the industry's success in crafting anti-protest legislation behind closed doors.
Speaking during a conference in Washington, DC in June, Derrick Morgan, senior vice president for federal and regulatory affairs at the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), touted "model legislation" that states across the nation have passed in recent months.
AFPM represents a number of major fossil fuel giants, including Chevron, Koch Industries and ExxonMobil.
"We've seen a lot of success at the state level, particularly starting with Oklahoma in 2017," said Morgan, citing Dakota Access Pipeline protests as the motivation behind the aggressive lobbying effort. "We're up to nine states that have passed laws that are substantially close to the model policy that you have in your packet."
Big Oil is now using its political power to try and criminalize protests of oil & gas infrastructure.— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) August 19, 2019
"This legislation has potential to punish public participation and mischaracterize advocacy protected by the First Amendment."https://t.co/bmiHjONEhy
The audio recording comes just months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law legislation that would punish anti-pipeline demonstrators with up to 10 years in prison, a move environmentalists condemned as a flagrant attack on free expression.
"Big Oil is hijacking our legislative system," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said after the Texas Senate passed the bill in May.
As The Intercept's Lee Fang reported Monday, the model legislation Morgan cited in his remarks "has been introduced in various forms in 22 states and passed in ... Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota."
"The AFPM lobbyist also boasted that the template legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support," according to Fang. "In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed the version of the bill there, which is being challenged by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Even in Illinois, Morgan noted, 'We almost got that across the finish line in a very Democratic-dominated legislature.' The bill did not pass as it got pushed aside over time constraints at the end of the legislative session."
Many of the state bills restricting the right to protest have been "drafted by companies and passed through groups like ALEC, the secretive group of corporate lobbyists trying to rewrite state laws to benefit corporations over people." @greenpeaceusa https://t.co/ZxpTjWdrwT— Stand Up To ALEC (@StandUpToALEC) May 6, 2019
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.