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What Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know About Microbeads

Health + Wellness

The California Governor is poised to sign AB 888, landmark legislation that would eliminate plastic microbeads from personal care products and close loopholes in microbeads bans passed in Illinois and several other states. It will be the model for the country and the western world.

The Story of Stuff Project, 5 Gyres Institute and partner organizations are cosponsors of AB 888, which is the best policy on plastic microbeads in the U.S. Photo credit: The Story of Stuff Project

As part of their intended use, products containing plastic microbeads—including toothpaste and facial scrubs—are rinsed down the drain, escape wastewater treatment and are littered into the environment. These plastics absorb and concentrate toxins and can enter the food chain when fish consume them.

The Story of Stuff Project, 5 Gyres Institute and partner organizations are cosponsors of AB 888, which is the best policy on plastic microbeads in the U.S. I have personally worked on this issue for more than three years with lawmakers, advocates, scientists and industry crafting policy that is good for both business and clean water. We’ve made progress. Before a successful Assembly vote earlier this spring, the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), representing 667 personal care products companies, dropped their opposition. Why? Because there wasn’t consensus amongst cosmetic companies on whether to fight advocates or actually listen to the public outrage about their products. A spokesman for the PCPC point blank told me in a meeting about the advice they gave to the companies they represent, “The take away here is: don’t put plastic in your products. People don’t like it.”

So Why are They Wanting to Substitute Plastic with Plastic?

Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, who have created vast product lines reliant on using plastic. They simply can’t reformulate their products with nutshells and such—nutshells work too well as exfoliants and thus, you can’t use them everyday. If you haven’t seen The Story of Stuff’s great animated short on this, check it out below. By using a less effective material like smooth plastic, they could create a daily cleanser and manufacture consumption and demand. This is big money—9 billion in revenue a year across the whole industry.

These two politically influential companies have fought against California’s policy tooth and nail because it doesn’t allow for so-called biodegradable plastics. The problem is, "biodegradable" is not defined in the law. It is a meaningless word from a statutory standpoint, even federally.

Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have disclosed zero information on what "biodegradable" means to them, providing no technical information, studies (third party of otherwise) showing how fast their proposed ingredients go away or whether they’ll be mixed with other, potentially-toxic, compounds. To give an exemption for an undefined and unproven technology would be irresponsible. Heck, even one of their chief product scientists, Homer Swei, told me that microbeads don’t even get into watersheds, sending me spurious (at best) information substantiating his claim. Is this the voice of a responsible company we are supposed to trust? I was part of the crew that collected those samples in the Great Lakes while on expedition with Dr. Sherri A. Mason, professor of chemistry at SUNY Fredonia.

Over the past several months, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble lobbyists have multiplied, falsely contending that the scientific, environmental and wastewater agencies that support the bill are anti-innovation and anti-green chemistry. Tactically, they’re employing strategies straight out of the big tobacco playbook, trying to spread doubt in order to create inaction. Indeed, lobbyists for industry have inaccurately argued that the sponsors of the California bill wouldn’t negotiate, despite the fact we’ve sought compromise over and over again: offering the companies more time to phase-out microbeads, giving them an exemption for prescription drugs and more. We even gave them a mechanism for a third party to test the safety of their new formulations—more on that later.

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The one place we won’t negotiate? Safety. Whatever reformulation personal care product companies choose has to be proven safe for the environment. And until we’re able to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their preferred alternatives are safe, we’re not willing to take the word of the very same companies that have been polluting our waters for over a decade with 2.9 trillion particles of plastic annually. So, to all you journalists out there—the media characterization of Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble agreeing to "voluntarily phase out plastic microbeads" is totally incorrect. They have agreed to phase out polyethylene microbeads and that’s it—they have no intention of using anything other than a new type of plastic.

So What are They Going to Use?

For two years we’ve been asking personal care products companies to tell us what ingredient they were looking to reformulate with. Only weeks ago did they disclose it—a type of plastic called Polyhydroxyalknoates (PHAs). What's interesting is that PHAs have been commercially available for over a decade for use in personal care products. There is nothing innovative about it; these same companies chose not to use PHAs because it's more expensive—legally, they could be using it right now. They chose to pollute instead of spend a few bucks on making their products safer.

To be fair, PHA is truly a great technology and I’ve learned tremendous amount about it the past year (yes, we anticipated what they’d use)—it has similar performance attributes to polypropylene and is fully biodegradable in the environment. Starbucks should be lining their paper cups with it. Keurig should be making coffee pods out of it. Both applications would be backyard compostable. Biodegradation times will vary in different temperatures and availability of microorganisms to eat it, but as a compound, it’s not dangerous and doesn’t require an industrial composting facility to degrade.

Most likely, PHAs would be an okay alternative (a dumb application of a promising technology) as it readily enters the Earth’s natural carbon cycle. Fish can eat it and digest it. Could plankton be adversely affected, due to their small size? Would it choke coral? Answer—we don’t know, scientifically. Nature itself even produces PHAs as a carbon storage device—translation, microorganisms make a sack lunch to eat later. The biggest drawbacks of PHAs are that they’re typically made from corn, palm oil, canola oil and sugarcane as a feedstock.

If those crops aren’t cultivated sustainably, they have a whole other suite of adverse affect on the ocean—pesticides, nutrients causing hypoxia, etc. But what could make PHA, by itself, dangerous? Adding a bunch of toxic and persistent additives to formulations that remain in the environment, even after the plastic has degraded. Most plastics have additives in them to give them their performance attributes. We are not going to trust Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble that they’re going to use PHAs and not mix it with other bad stuff. What’s the saying? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

As an act of good will, we even publicly committed to crafting a policy that will assess the safety of proposed ingredients and at the same time jump start innovation and green jobs. We created a mechanism in our bill for a California agency to assess proposed ingredients for safety and biodegradability claims. Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble opposed that, too, wagering they could just kill the bill entirely. So we passed it without, simply banning plastic microbeads.

You know who didn’t oppose the agency oversight mechanism? Mango Materials—a California based producer of PHAs whose technology is so advanced, they don’t need to mix their materials with persistent compounds to achieve desired performance attributes. And heck, they even make it from a feedstock of waste methane, sequestering a potent greenhouse gas. So what is Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble hiding? Or are they just really bad at communicating from HQ to their hired lobby guns?

But beyond all the fighting in state and federal capitals, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble are just plain missing the point. One, we don’t need exfoliants at all. They serve no medicinal purpose—to wit, even Johnson & Johnson compare their products’ efficacy to a sponge on their own website. Please let’s bring back the sponge. Or the loofa. Even the natural stuff is packaged in plastic. But the bigger point is simpler, regardless of the environmental implications—people don’t like washing their face and brushing their teeth with plastic, biodegradable or otherwise. It’s time for these companies to quit fighting us, acknowledge they were wrong to put little bits of plastic in their products and retool their product lines to be safe. You earn trust.

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