NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today praised the State Assembly for passing first-in-the-nation legislation banning a form of plastic pollution that is an emerging threat to New York’s Great Lakes and other bodies of water. The Attorney General’s Microbead-Free Waters Act, sponsored in the Assembly by Long Island Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, will prohibit the sale in New York of beauty and cosmetic products that contain tiny plastic particles, often marketed as microbeads. The Assembly passed the bill by a vote of 108 to 0. The plastic beads, which were recently found in alarmingly high levels in the New York waters of Lake Erie, may persist in the environment for centuries and accumulate toxic chemicals on their surface, threatening fish, wildlife and public health.
“By passing the Microbead-Free Waters Act, the Assembly has taken an important step toward protecting and restoring New York’s waterways, from the Great Lakes to the Hudson River to Long Island Sound,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “I am grateful to Speaker Silver and Assemblyman Sweeney for their partnership in the effort to stop the flow of plastic pollution from ill-designed beauty products into our vital waters where it jeopardizes wildlife and public health.”
The Microbead-Free Waters Act would prohibit the distribution and sale in New York of any beauty product, cosmetic or other personal care product containing plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size. Microbeads are commonly found in more than 100 products, including facial scrubs, soaps, shampoo and toothpaste, where they replace ground walnut shells, sea salt, and other natural materials used as an abrasives.
Erin Crotty, Executive Director of Audubon New York and Vice President of the National Audubon Society, said, “Small plastics like microbeads pose a growing threat to many bird species that feed at the water’s surface. Many waterbirds mistake plastics for food -- or are susceptible to bioaccumulation of plastic in the fish they eat -- with detrimental effect, including decreased food-absorption and starvation. Audubon New York applauds New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Assemblyman Robert Sweeney and the New York State Assembly for their leadership and attention to the growing problem of plastic pollution, and the threat it poses to birds and people across the globe.”
Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Robert K. Sweeney said, “Today, we’ve taken an important step toward ridding our oceans, lakes and waterways of microbeads. People are unwilling to sacrifice water quality just to continue to use products with plastic microbeads. I never met anyone who has wanted plastic on their face or in their fish. I want to thank Attorney General Schneiderman for partnering with me to take action on this important issue.”
When products containing microbeads are used in the home, the beads are rinsed down the drain and into our sewer systems. Because of their small size and buoyancy, microbeads escape treatment by sewage plants and are discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans.
In 2012, a team of researchers that included scientists from the State University of New York at Fredonia discovered alarming levels of microbeads in the Great Lakes – with the highest concentrations recorded in the New York waters of Lake Erie. Half of all plastics collected on the surface of Lake Erie were the perfectly spherical, multi-colored beads identical to the microbeads used in beauty products. Other plastics collected included larger plastic litter that had broken down in the environment, such as detergent bottles and Styrofoam.
Once in the water, microbeads, like other plastics, can attract and accumulate certain toxic chemicals commonly found in waters across the state, and can be mistaken as food by small fish and wildlife. Scientific studies have shown that fish and wildlife of all sizes consume plastic. In the Great Lakes, SUNY Fredonia researchers performing food web surveys are finding plastic in the gastrointestinal tracts of perch. In addition, environmental pollution found in Great Lakes waters, such as PCBs (the industrial pollutants polychlorinated biphenyls), gravitate and attach to the surface of plastic. If fish or other species low on the food chain eat these contaminated plastics, the chemicals are passed on to larger fish that people eat and to birds and other wildlife.
To date, the Great Lakes are the only New York open waters sampled for plastic pollution. However, microbeads in beauty products can pass through sewage treatment facilities in any part of the State, raising concerns about their introduction into other State waters.