Members of the Vermont House voted Tuesday to ban the production and sale in Vermont of products containing microbeads. Microbeads are the almost invisible plastic scrubbing granules found in many personal care products, such as soaps and cleansers.
Water quality advocates and environmentalists claim that the non-biodegradable plastic waste get washed down the drain and into the wastewater stream. Microbeads are so small that they can pass through most of the Vermont’s wastewater treatment plants. According to Robert Fischer, chief operator of the Montpelier wastewater treatment plant, the Montpelier facility can only filter out debris more than six millimeters in size. Scientists says the microbeads are often smaller than five millimeters.
“The vast majority have no ability to filter it off, and for the ones that do, it would still be problematic,” Fischer said. There are 59 wastewater treatment plants that discharge into Lake Champlain, and only five in the Burlington area use a cloth filtration to catch microbeads. After removal with other sludge the beads are either sent to a landfill or used as biosolid fertilizer, according to Fischer.
Last week the VT House’s Fish and Wildlife Committee took up bill, H.4,, which would prohibit the manufacture (effective Jan. 1, 2017) and sale (effective Jan. 1, 2018) of the products in Vermont. Last year Illinois enacted a similar ban on microbeads after the beads were found in the Great Lakes. The Illinois bill takes effect one year later. Yesterday the Vermont House voted to impose the ban; the bill still needs Senate approval before becoming law.
There have been no studies that measure the quantities of microbeads in Vermont’s waterways, but some Lake Champlain scientists say the beads can be seen along the shoreline – along with other trash.
Lori Fisher, executive director of the Lake Champlain Committee, says that microbeads do pose harm to aquatic life. She said fish feed on the buoyant beads, mistaking them for fish eggs. “This can cause internal abrasions and blockages resulting in reduced food consumption, stunted growth and starvation. When plankton, mussels or fish fill up on plastic junk food they are likely to lose their appetite for healthier food.” Fisher and others say the microbeads also attract toxic chemicals which can then make their way up the food chain, through studies have not documented this as a risk to public health.
Rachael Miller, executive director of the Rozalia Project, a group of scientists who study marine trash, said pollutants attach themselves to the plastic beads like a sticker and can be carried through the food chain. “The presence of this stuff has the potential to affect the ecosystems, and we are part of that ecosystem,” Miller said.
Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation, a Burlington-based manufacturer of environmental household products, said the company uses ground coconut shell in some of its products. “Microbeads are nonessential. Substances exist that are mineral or biodegradable, perform the same function, and have no meaningful impact on the economics of the products in which they are used,” he said in testimony to the Committee. He said alternatives include hardened seed kernels, crushed cocoa beans, ground coconut shells, oatmeal, calcium carbonate and silica. All of these materials are organic compounds that are biodegradable.
Many manufacturers already use alternatives, such as ground nuts, oatmeal and pumice, and are not opposing the ban. However, they urge Vermont to pass regulations that align with those in Illinois, including postponing the proposed implementation date by one year.
In Vermont’s bill, manufacturing with microbeads would be banned beginning Jan. 1, 2017, and banned for sale the following year. The Personal Care Products Council suggested pushing back the Vermont regulations back by one year to Dec. 31, 2017, to match regulations in Illinois.
“We really look forward to having a commitment to phase out, but we can’t have 50 different sets of rules,” said Mike Thompson of the Personal Care Products Council, a trade group representing cosmetic and personal care member companies. “It’s not a position of any opposition … we are committed to removing microbeads from our products.” “It is something our members started, and the industry is committed to phasing out microbeads on a timely basis,” Thompson said.
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