A bill that would ban soaps, shampoos and other consumer products containing tiny plastic “microbeads” in Maine sailed through a legislative committee Wednesday after manufacturers and environmentalists made a rare alignment behind the measure.
Maine is one of roughly two dozen states where lawmakers are considering banning microbeads in personal care products, responding to concerns that the minuscule plastic pellets accumulate in lakes, rivers and oceans after passing through wastewater treatment filters. The synthetic microbeads pick up potentially toxic contaminants along the way before entering the food chain.
“There is too much at stake for us in Maine to wait for industry to decide this issue one company at a time, which is what is currently happening, and it is also very confusing for the entire retail industry,” said Cathy Ramsdell, with the nonprofit organization Friends of Casco Bay. “Microbeads clearly are a threat to the health of the bay and viable alternatives do exist.”
Microbeads are plastic beads often measuring a fraction the size of a grain of sand that are marketed as exfoliants in hygiene products and cosmetics. Wastewater treatment plant operators say installing filters capable of capturing the tiny beads would be excessively costly and would necessitate increased maintenance.
The bill unanimously endorsed by the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee would prohibit manufacturers in Maine from using microbeads in personal care products – such as body wash, toothpaste, facial scrubs and soap – as of Dec. 31, 2017.
That is likely a small group, given the types of manufacturing done in Maine. But one year later, Maine stores would be prohibited from accepting for sale any personal care products containing microbeads.
The legislation defines synthetic plastic microbeads as “any intentionally added non-biodegradable solid plastic particle measuring less than 5 millimeters in size and used to exfoliate or cleanse in a product intended to be rinsed off.”
Maine’s legislation is modeled after bills that have already been signed into law in Illinois and New York. Many manufacturers are already removing or replacing synthetic microbeads with natural, biodegradable alternatives – such as salt and flecks of crushed fruit pits or nuts – in response to the environmental concerns and consumer demand.
The two leading industry trade groups representing manufacturers, the Personal Care Products Council and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, testified in support of the bill on Wednesday.
Chris Jackson, a lobbyist representing both organizations, said federal legislation would be preferable to state-by-state laws but that consistency across states would help manufacturers and retailers.
“The Personal Care Products Council wanted to communicate that they are in support and they take questions and concerns around environmental impacts of their products extremely seriously,” Jackson said. “In fact, many of their leading member companies have already voluntarily begun the process of fading out the use of these microbeads.”
The Retail Association of Maine, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and several environmental organizations also supported the bill.
Abigail Barrows, coastal monitoring coordinator with the Marine & Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, said microbeads and other types of micro-plastics affect all levels of the food chain, from zooplankton to large marine mammals.
Barrows’ organization found “very high concentrations” of micro-plastics in some mussels and oysters collected in Maine and as well as in water samples from Blue Hill and Penobscot bays, particularly near discharge sites of treated wastewater.
“Passage of L.D. 85 would go a long way to tackling the serious and growing pollution problem in the Gulf of Maine,” Barrows said. “Why would we not want to immediately stop toxic plastics entering the food chain and ending up on our dinner plates?”
No one testified in opposition to the bill, prompting sponsor and committee chairman Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, to move to rush the bill through committee in a single day. Saviello said a unanimous committee vote could also help the bill win support of the full Legislature and pass muster with Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who has opposed past efforts to ban products or product ingredients based on environmental concerns.
“It is a little bit unusual to have people on both sides of anything agree with each other” in this committee, said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who has served more than 40 years in the Legislature, including a long stint as speaker of the House. “In this instance, it is one of those times where if you have unanimity, take it and run.”