Plastic microbeads up close. Purchasers can choose a color when they order.
Plastic microbeads up close. Purchasers can choose a color when they order. - 
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Lots of personal care products—like facial scrubs and even some toothpastes—are jammed with little plastic beads.  When they go down the drain, they end up in our lakes and rivers, by the millions.  They’re too small to be filtered out by water-treatment systems.  

New York legislators are reviewing a proposed ban following a request from non-profit group 5 Gyres Institute, which monitors plastic wastes in the oceans. A couple of years ago, their research team went hunting in the Great Lakes.

The group’s executive director, Anna Cummings, stayed home, but her husband, the head researcher, made the trip.  

"So my husband called me from Lake Erie," she says, "and he said, ‘You’ll never believe this, but in a sample from Lake Erie, we had 1,500 little particles of plastic, and it looks like they’re microbeads from facial products.’”

When he got home, he bought a 5.5 oz. tube of Clean & Clear scrub and started counting beads. Cummings watched him stay up till 2 a.m., three nights running.

"It’s an average of 300,000 in one single tube," she says.

5 Gyres asked companies to take the little beads out of products. Some, including Johnson & Johnson, agreed to phase them out in favor of natural alternatives. But there were too many companies to track down.

In response, 5 Gyres has asked states to ban the products outright. New York’s attorney general pushed for that state’s legislation, which would ban the beads by the end of 2015.  

"It's a significant problem," says Lemuel Srolovic, who heads the office's Environmental Protection Bureau. "They kind of act like tiny sponges to which toxic chemicals—that may be in low concentrations in the water—really concentrate on these beads."

If fish eat the beads, those toxins could end up in the human food chain.  

Later this week, a California legislator expects to introduce a similar bill.  That would make two big markets off-limits.

Demian Conover, who watches Johnson & Johnson for Morningstar, says if that company hadn’t already agreed to phase out the beads, state laws like this would force the issue.

"If you lose those two states, you’re starting to lose some pretty critical scale," he says. "You start to defeat the branding strategy that these companies go for."

He thinks a company like Johnson & Johnson would rejigger the product, or dump it. 5 Gyres has a list of five other states that may consider similar bills soon.

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Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann