12 • 10 • 2015

Surfrider Fights for Strong Microbeads Legislation on the Federal Level

By Angela Howe

As Surfrider Foundation members know, microbeads are a major problem for the health of our oceans. The small plastic particles, which are found in personal care products such as face scrubs and toothpastes, get into our waterways since they are too small to be filtered out by our municipal sewer systems. Once in the ocean, these plastics contaminate the marine environment and the sea life it supports. Of the 20 tons of plastic pollution entering the ocean each year, approximately 92% is made up of microplastics.

To combat this major form of water pollution, the Surfrider Foundation has been advocating at the local, state and now at the federal level for the regulation of these bad little beads.  Several states have begun to ban the bead and legislation has already passed in nine states, including very strong legislation passed in California and Connecticut. Now the federal legislature has taken notice of the problem and begun to address the issue.

Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Fred Upton (R-MI) led a strong bipartisan effort to pass the microbeads bill in the House of Representatives. The Surfrider Foundation supported the bill in concept and asked for the strongest language possible to ensure that the tide of microbead pollution is truly stopped when the legislation goes into effect.  We were able to secure a bill with definitions essentially on par with the strong California bill and ensure that there was no loophole for so-called “biodegradable” plastic microbeads, as is found in some weaker state legislation.  While the current version of the bill does allow for preemption, it would preempt (or override) the handful of weaker state bills that have already passed, and it has a quicker timeline than even the California legislation (which becomes effective in 2020), beginning to go into effect in 2017. Also, any future legislation to add state enforcement mechanisms to the current federal enforcement scheme would not be preempted by this bill.  H.R. 1321 passed the House Floor on December 7, 2015.

The Senate version of the Microbead-Free Waters Act (S. 1424) is sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York. The bill prohibits the manufacture of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics as of January 1, 2018. Surfrider expects the Senate version will be amended to become more in line with the House version of the bill, which prohibits the use of microbeads in toothpaste, cosmetics, and almost all soaps. Because of the strong support for this bill, it may move through the Senate quickly and on to the President’s desk.  Stay tuned to to find out more and for opportunities to take action on this important legislation.

** UPDATE:  On December 18, the Senate unanimously passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act.  This means the bill is on its way to the President's desk for his signature.  We expect President Obama to sign this historic legislation, which will be a huge win for our ocean! **