HB 15-1144 – Plastic Microbead Legislation – Did Colorado add Greenwashing to the list of legislative priorities?

Today Governor Hickenlooper signed HB 15-1144 a ban on solid synthetic microbeads added to cosmetic materials like face scrubs and body washes!  This bill is designed to keep tiny particles of plastic out of our waterways and local biospheres because of the negative impacts of plastic in these locations.   Colorado joins a variety of states, the first being Illinois, who are banning these microbeads.  In Illinois, efforts to introduce scientific legislation was attempted by members of the 5 Gyres Institute and the Ban the Bead Campaign.
Scientifically there are two primary problems with microbeads in our waters.  The first issue is that plastics are made with binding agents that  seep into the water when issues where the plastics leach chemicals into the water impacting the quality and purity of water.   The second issue is that these plastics are often viewed as food and are then consumed by insects and fish where two serious impacts occur.  Since plastic does not get digested by animals it accumulates in their bellies, filling up space for nutrient providing foods.  This accumulation causes a lack of space for real consumable, nutrient rich materials while leaching into the body of the animal that has consumed it.

Banning microbeads is a noble and valuable activity that should push regulations on corporations and manufacturers to be accountable and responsible for the materials they create and the environmental damage they do.  The scientific facts speak for themselves, microplastic is bad for the environment.  The Wisconsin Lakes Partnership dedicated the first three pages of it’s Fall 2014 newsletter exclusively to this topic.

The unfortunate truth is that the corporate lobby built a loophole into the rules they are placing upon themselves.  They introduced the legal terms of “Solid Synthetics” and “Nonbiodegradeable” as the specific type of plastic that would be banned.  There is scientific concern about this verbiage based on the fact that truly biodegradable plastic must have microbial breakdown.  This breakdown is only found in commercial or “hot compost” facilities.  In their 2015 publication in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Michigan State University student’s published a study concluding:

“anaerobic and aerobic biodegradation are not recommended as feasible disposal routes for nonbiodegradable plastics containing any of the five tested biodegradation-promoting additives.” (Selke et all – 2015)

There are dozens of journal articles and news pieces that support this thought process leading educated consumers to understand that purported bioplastics are still going to enter our waters, causing deadly toxins to enter Colorado waters, causing the same concerns for bioaccumulation that  has proven to exist in our waters.  As this piece by Mother Jones from 2009 explains; “Real biodegradable plastic should be sent to a commercial composting facility, where it will spend its final days being eaten by microbes. But here’s the catch: In 2007, only 42 communities nationwide offered compost collection. (Seventeen were in California.) And though some biodegradable plastics can be recycled, no curbside recycling program will take them.”
The unfortunate part in the current movement to ban microbeads is that this effort is being led by corporations who wish to regulate themselves so they have the control and upper hand.  In an earlier post, I commented on how Johnson and Johnson, as well as other entities showed up to Colorado House Committee Meetings to introduce soft legislation that would offer a consistent level of legislation they could manipulate in order to have “consistent legislation”.   These organizations are already phasing out these plastics from their products., but want to allow for the weakest levels of legislation to be enacted.   This process began with Unilever in 2012 and has gained momentum as you can read about in this post on Beat The Microbead’s page.

This is exactly what Director of the 5 Gyres Institue’s predicted would happen in a 2014 EcoWatch Article stating “According to Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres Institute, plastics industry lobbyists worked hard to block it, wanting legislation more like the far from ideal bill that passed in Illinois. The Ilinois bill leaves a loophole for plastic, like Polylactic Acid (PLA) the so-called biodegradable plastic that corn cups are made of. Unfortunately, PLA doesn’t biodegrade in the environment, it requires an industrial composting facility.”

And this is what has happened here in the state of Colorado.  Colorado HB-15-1144 bill specifically states:.

4) “SYNTHETIC PLASTIC MICROBEAD” MEANS AN INTENTIONALLY ADDED, NONBIODEGRADABLE, PLASTIC PARTICLE MEASURING LESS THAN FIVE MILLIMETERS IN SIZE   INTENDED TO AID IN EXFOLIATING OR CLEANSING AS PART OF A RINSE-OFF PRODUCT.”

This is exactly the actions that have been predicted by many environmentalist groups, that the efforts of the science community to curtail the effects of microplastics would be mitigated by corporations who originally fought microbead legislation so they would have the opportunity to craft and create looser regulations that would present “Greenwashed” material information that would weaken future efforts to protect our water.  Colorado is known for being a state that has fought hard to protect our waters and this bill is an unfortunate example.

The reason is very simple.  Biodegradeable plastics have not been proven to biodegrade in cold water settings.  According to Brenda Platt, coordinator for Sustainable Plastics Project:

  “Truly biodegradable plastics are plastics that can decompose into carbon dioxide, methane, water, inorganic compounds, or biomass via microbial assimilation (the enzymatic action of microorganism). To be considered biodegradable, this decomposition has to be measured by standardized tests, and take place within a specified time period, which vary according to the “disposal” method chosen. The American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) has created definitions on what constitutes biodegradability in various disposal environments.”

What this boils down to is sadly is that  that Colorado’s Microbead ban, HB 15-1144 is a piece of greenwashing legislation presented by corporations who are willingly removing certain types of plastics from their products – ones they already agree to take out, while  having consent to pollute in a slightly different way that still has negative impacts on our environment. The bill, is a bill with solid foundations.  Unfortunately, it happened so fast that even those individuals in the community that tried reaching out to the bills writers didn’t get an effective chance to effectively communicate the scientific realities major corporations were able to step around in the writing of this bill.

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of solutions that already exist!  Besides avoiding purchasing products that already include microplastic, consumers are advised to look for exfoliating products that include natural or real plant products that are effective exfolliants.  Common materials include oatmeal, apricot or peach pits and walnut shells.  These products are already commonly found in supermarket shelves.

Colorado introduces Microbead Legislation HB 15-1144

Plastic pollution is a growing global concern that continues to draw attention from around the world.  One of the greatest reasons plastic pollution attracts so much attention is that it can literally take hundreds of years, even thousands of years to break down.  Over the years many scientific organizations have examined the impacts of plastic pollution on our waters and the life within.  These studies have covered everything from the impacts of ingested plastics on fish to how plastics leach chemicals into our bodies like Bisphenol A, an endocrine disruptor that has similar impacts to estrogen in both humans and animals.

One of the main reasons that our planet is filled with plastic is that there are minimal restrictions on a global level to regulate the recapture of plastics around the world.  In the United States, many states attempted to regulate the manufacture and recapture of used plastic bottles through the use of a legislative measure called a Bottle Bill.  These bottle bills required a deposit, or small fee, at the time of purchase.  The manufactures would then be held accountable to ensure that the materials The concept required the consumer to incur a financial liability in order to encourage the return of the empty packaging in order to receive the money back.  Many bottle bills were opposed by the manufactures, who gathered together to form the Beverage Consumers of America, a lobby organization who fought against end user responsibilities based on the premise that it would be to expensive to manage these materials.
In a general way, manufacturing companies are consistently known for their unwillingness to hold themselves liable for the impact of materials they sell once consumers have disposed of them.  This problem, when it comes to plastic, has become so great that some scientists like Dr Marcus Erickson of the 5 Gyres Oceanic institute have recently come to the understanding that there are more pieces of plastic in our oceans than stars in the sky.  Among the efforts of the 5 Gyres team, the effort to eliminate Plastic Microbeads has not been a short lived effort.  The first win was when the state of IL passed the first ever microbead legislation, banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products by 2017.

On Monday Febuary 9th, I learned that the State of Colorado would be presenting it’s first ever legislation on plastic microbeads.  Without any hesitation I knew I had to be there!  For the last 3 years all I have been talking about is plastic pollution across our planet and my personal actions have included eliminating the purchase of Bath and Body Works pump soaps, an item I had been handing out as presents to friends and family for years, simply because they contain plastic microbeads.   My investment in this topic has included presenting to the Colorado Water Board as they held open roundtables regarding the efforts of developing a State Water Plan, providing an opinion that microbeads should be banned as part of the state’s developing plan.

Going to the Colorado State Capitol in and of itself was quite an experience.  The building is beautiful and has an extensive history within, including being made of the only Red Marble known in the world, which comes from Bula, Colorado. I had little trouble find the room I was seeking, so many Sargent at Arms in their green jackets.  The capitol is a warm building and the basement room in which the house committee met had windows in which the sun warmed the room.  The environment was pleasant and by the time Representative Premavera was called in I was starting to get a feel for the procedures of the day.

The thing that shocked me most in her testimony and introduction of the bill was the fact that it was sponsored by Johnson and Johnson, a company that makes personal care products full of these plastics. I watched as a variety of preferred expert witnesses came forward representing various organizations like the Manufactures Association, the Denver Waste water District, Colorado Water Board, Johnson and Johnson and Cosmetic Producers Association.  As each came up they had brief prepared statements describing their support for the bill, and how they were actively looking for uniform laws across the states to make their jobs easier.  They justified the low levels of financial penalties, the timeline of delay and the specificity of limiting the use of plastics in their specific items.  Each was asked a few questions from varying  House representatives.  During the entire time I was taking notes on a copy of the written text of the bill I was able to scrounge up ( love those Sargent’s at Arms).

After the preferred testimonies, the floor was available to those who chose to sign up and do so.  I had shown up, having spoken about plastics and micobeads at many different events over the last 36 months, including roundtable meetings regarding Colorado’s State Water Plan.  I introduced myself and my position as a student at MSU Denver and as the senior club president of the Water Association of Student Stewards Urban Program.  I explained that I was there to testify on behalf of Water, yes that is what I said, I was there to represent myself on behalf of Water itself.  I did not have a prepared testimony, and I apologized to the representatives as I had received short notice on the presentation but was experienced in the topic.  I responded to the idea that this was a corporately sponsored bill, that there were no expert scientists presenting data on bio -accumulation of plastics, the resulting impacts to fish, hydro accumulation of other toxins that accumulate by attraction and a plethora of other factors that would surely solidify the import of their support.  I explained how the industry at one time was fighting these exact bills and were, quite honestly presenting a very soft version of legislature that allowed for future use of “biodegradable” plastics was an open loophole they had written in.  This loophole is dangerous because the same factors of leaching from unregulated plastic ingredients are already causing significant impact on our environment.  I made commentary on how the fines are minimal compared to profits available and how the IL state bill was significantly tougher on companies than the bill that was presented today.

In the end, I provided a rebuttal answer to each of the questions the preferred witnesses had not answered in a way that was as complete or full as I believed a scientist would have.  And at the end of the day, I testified on Colorado HB 15-1144 in the House Committee furthering my resume and experience as an authority on the topic.  In addition, I was able to make some network connections.  It was my first formal experience in front of a state house committee in the capitol, and the only way I could ask for a more gratifying one is if you act right now to pledge to eliminate microbeads from your consumer goods today.