Perhaps you've heard of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," a "plastic soup" of floating waste in the Pacific purportedly twice the size of the United States, but did you know that similar plastic pollution has been documented throughout the Great Lakes? Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Assemblyman Robert Sweeney have recognized the threat that this pollution poses to human health, and have recently announced legislation that could speed significant changes in the plastics industry and stop the pollution at its source-your bathroom sink. Unlike in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the culprit in the Great Lakes is not necessarily dumping, but rather the ubiquitous plastic abrasives found in hundreds of common personal care products. Known as "microbeads," these tiny plastic particles are found in everything from cosmetics to toothpaste. They get washed down the drain your bathroom sink, and float untreated through sewage treatment plants into lakes and streams. Once in the environment, they can accumulate and concentrate PCBs and other persistent toxic chemicals that are present in New York's waters as a legacy of the state's industrial past.
Experts fear that the microbeads and associated toxics might travel up the food chain to larger fish that humans catch and consume, posing potential health problems by virtue of plastic fibers and accumulated toxic chemicals.
The proposed bill, dubbed the "Microbead-free Waters Act" (Bill No. A08744), seeks to prohibit the manufacture, distribution and sale of personal cosmetic products containing microbeads. If passed into law, it could impose civil penalties of up to $2,500 for a first offense, and $5,000 for a second offense.
The legislation was crafted in part by the 5 Gyres Institute, an environmental group who has advocated for similar legislation in California, as well. The group envisions this proposed legislation to be the first of a series of legislative dominos in the United States and around the world.
To their credit, three top manufacturers, Proctor and Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive have all previously made commitments to phase microbeads out of their personal care products within the next several years. However, if passed into law, the Microbead-free Waters Act would force all manufacturers with ties to New York to abandon microbeads. Since natural materials such as crushed walnut shells can be substituted for microbeads, it seems unlikely that the legislation would be a target for a legal challenge by industry.
What remains to be seen is the level of resources that the legislature would grant authorities to enforce this law, should it be passed. With cosmetics and personal care products entering New York State from around the globe, the potential targets for enforcement are numerous. Therefore, retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers with a connection to New York State should follow this proposed legislation closely.
For more information, or to review the text of the proposed bill, visit the New York State Assembly's webpage here. For additional information on Periconi, LLC's civil and criminal enforcement action defense practice, click here.