Victory on Plastic Microbeads! Why What Happens in California Matters Everywhere

For three years, we’ve been working together to stop trillions of tiny plastic beads from entering our waterways. So, how did those plastic beads get into our water in the first place? Personal care products, from body scrubs to toothpaste, that employ the bits of plastic as exfoliants. Our home state of California has been ground zero in the global fight to rid products of microbeads and last week, after failing to pass a microbeads bill last year by one vote, we got it done. Once Governor Brown signs the legislation into law, California’s microbeads policy will be the toughest on the books in the United States, eliminating plastic microbeads of any kind.

Here’s a bit about how we worked with the Story of Stuff Community to pass this strong legislation and why this new policy is so important:

California wasn’t the first state to pass a microbeads ban—Illinois, Connecticut and other states were out in front. But these and other policies around the country and world contain loopholes for so-called biodegradable plastic alternatives. Unbeknownst to many of the well-intentioned legislators that pushed them, these policies were actually written by the personal care products industry in an attempt to end-run true regulation and oversight.

Last year, as we were fighting with industry lobbyists in the California legislature over our proposed bill, it became clear that personal care products companies—in particular big hitters Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble—wouldn’t accept a bill without a loophole for alternatives, despite public pledges to phase out plastic microbeads. Then it dawned on me—the reason they were fighting so hard was they wanted to use another type of plastic. Indeed, during the meeting in which I realized this and called them on it, the whole room went quiet. It was a bait and switch. After that, they wouldn’t work with us anymore; they wanted our bill dead. And last year they succeeded, saying we were ‘stifling innovation.’

To be clear, the Story of Stuff Project is supportive of clean, green, innovative technologies, but our Community demands proof that these technologies are safe before we craft policy to champion them. We expressed openness to negotiations with the industry repeatedly. But the representatives of Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble kept speaking out of both sides of their mouths: opposing every mechanism that would give them a pathway for safety certification of the alternatives they wanted to use while at the same time claiming we were anti-innovation and closed to negotiations.

To prepare for this year’s legislative season, we did a tremendous amount of research on biopolymers and found that some really great stuff is coming to market. For instance, a start-up based near us in Richmond, CA, Mango Materials, was creating a biopolymer from waste methane that degraded in water treatment. As a result, we told the companies we thought the technology was promising, even though we felt using it for this particular application was kinda dumb. (Let’s face it: the demand for ‘exfoliating cleansers,’ or toothpaste with plastic was entirely manufactured; no doctor or dentist was vouching for their effectiveness.)

Nonetheless, we tried to find common ground with industry. We asked for clarity on the new ingredients they were proposing to use, but they declined to hand them over. Simply put, they wanted us to take their word for it. But as the saying goes, ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.’ After all, these were the same people who continued to claim, as recently as this year, that no microbeads were escaping water treatment and entering the environment!

When it became clear earlier this year that the ‘anti-innovation’ label was sticking for some legislators, we included an amendment that laid out a mechanism for industry to prove that its alternative materials were safe—that they would indeed biodegrade before entering the environment and wouldn’t end up as fish food. But a funny thing happened on the way to this attempt at consensus; industry lobbyists killed that amendment in the State Senate and with it the mechanism to evaluate potential alternatives. As a result, no plastic microbeads will be allowed.

Had they supported the amendment and been willing to be transparent about the safety of their new ingredients, the personal care product industry would have been able to reformulate without the Story of Stuff Community and others breathing down their necks. But Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble wagered that by hiring powerful lobbying firms to stop the bill altogether, they’d be able influence a proposed federal bill, get a loophole, and supersede the ability of states like California to act.

But they were wrong. And they’ll be wrong again.

Thousands of our Community members in California kept their legislators’ feet to the fire. And tens of thousands more around the world kept the pressure on industry to ensure their hijinx wouldn’t work this year again. In short, because of you, we won.

We expect our bill will be signed into law by California Governor Jerry Brown. To ensure that, we’re asking our incredible Community to take one more action to ensure that happens. Meanwhile, I’m on my to Washington DC to make sure the proposed federal bill is as good as California’s. I’ll let you know how that goes.

In the meantime, thank YOU Story of Stuff Community. Together, we did right for our planet and the citizens that inhabit it. None of this would have been possible without your support, generosity and enthusiasm!


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