Wikimedia Commons

Microbeads, the tiny plastic beads used in soap, toothpaste, and other cleaning and personal hygiene products, are no longer welcome in California. On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that will will prohibit the sale of microbead-laden products in the state starting in 2020.

Microbeads have become a big problem in the United States, and California is the latest in a string of states to pass laws restricting their use, including at Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland and New Jersey. New York has also strongly considered passing anti-microbead legislation.

These small, sand-like grains of plastic, which are valued for their coarse scrubbing and exfoliating properties, end up infiltrating water systems, passing through filters, and gathering in larger bodies of water. From there they can be ingested by fish or other wildlife and start making their way up the food chain, or simply join the growing mass of plastic flotsam.

One recent study found that an estimated 808 trillion plastic microbeads go down the drain of U.S. households daily, with about eight trillion released into waterways like lakes and oceans each day. In California, microbeads, which are typically smaller than one millimeter in size, contribute an estimated 38 tons of plastic pollution to the state's environment. The 5 Gyres Institute, which advocates for a plastic-free ocean, estimates that a single container of facial cleanser can contain more than 300,000 microbeads.

"A recent study found a staggering amount of micro-plastic pollution in the San Francisco Bay but these beads have also been found in the open ocean, rivers and the Great Lakes,” said Assembly Member Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), who authored the bill. “Today, California steps forward to lead the nation in environmental protection by banning this pervasive source of plastic pollution."


Bloom went on to say that California's bill avoids any loopholes that might let harmful substitutes squeeze through the law, and that environmentally safe alternatives will be used. These so-called loopholes can leave the regulation up for interpretation when it comes to how long the substituted biodegradable products can remain in the environment. Some environmentally friendly alternatives include things like salt, sugar, and apricot shells.

“The sponsors and author of The California Microbeads Bill drafted our policy to be the most environmentally responsible in the world. We simply banned plastic microbeads of any kind,” said Stiv Wilson, Campaigns Director for The Story of Stuff Project, in a statement. “If industry wants to use a form of biodegradable plastic, they’re going to have to prove it’s totally safe before they can use it."

The fastest way to limit harm from microbeads is to stop buying products that contain them. They commonly show up on labels as synthetic compounds like polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon.