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More than a little issue made over microbead ban

October 14, 2015

Tiny plastic beads used in skin cleaners to scrub off grime took up more than 90 minutes of a House committee’s time Tuesday morning as lawmakers debate how to keep the beads out of fish stomachs.

The topic of the day in the House Natural Resources Committee was “microbeads,” an abrasive skin product the personal care products industry is phasing out of using due, in part, to new laws in California, Illinois and other states that ban them entirely. 

Rep. Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes) is pushing legislation, HB 4345, backed by the Michigan Chemistry Council and business groups that phase out the use of “non-biodegradable” plastic beads from products. 

The concern is the beads wash down the sink, slip through the water treatment plants, get shot out with the treated water into lakes and streams, and are gobbled up by fish who mistake them for fish eggs. 

All the while, the plastic soaks up various toxins that make it into the fish’s dinner. So when that fish becomes a bigger fish’s dinner, which then gets caught and becomes our dinner, we, too, are putting toxin-laden microbeads into our systems. 

Democrats and environmentalists pushed back today because they see companies working around the word “biodegradable” to mean something that naturally breaks down in hundreds of years, which doesn’t really help solve the problem. 

“I’d rather we pass nothing than pass what we have before us today,” flatly stated Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette), a statement shared by a string of environmental groups, who at the very least want the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to be given the authority to write strict definitions to what is “biogradable.” 

“We don’t believe this will lead to any meaningful gains,” said Amy Trotter, deputy director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “We can pat ourselves on the back and say we did something, but we don’t believe this will have any meaningful impact.” 

Rep. Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) has her own legislation that bans all plastic beads from personal care products and, in a substitute she is willing to offer, says civil fines “shall” be ordered as opposed to the Outman bill, which allows for a $2,500 civil fine, but doesn’t mandate it. 

Democrats on Tuesday’s panel and groups like the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), Michigan Trout Unlimited and the Michigan Steelhead & Salmon Fishermen’s Association seemed more at ease with Greig’s language. 

The committee chair, Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R-Columbus Twp.), told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing she was open to looking at defining “nonbiodegradable,” kicking the matter to the DEQ or working any other alternative to gain more support for Outman’s bill, but declined to give a timeframe. 

When does something become biodegradable? Under what temperature does it disintegrate? These are questions the DEQ aren’t in a hurry to jump into based on the agency’s testimony today. 

The DEQ is hoping current rules and regulations allowing regulators to take action when something is injuring a fish or other wildlife settles the matter. 

Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) fears lawmakers would be “going around in circles” if they start getting into such details as when a plastic bead dissolves. Kicking the issue to the DEQ doesn’t help either because the first group who suggests a timeframe “has a big target on their head.” 

McBroom tried to get Trotter to give her definition on biodegradable, but when she didn’t take the bait, McBroom used her unwillingness to cough up hard numbers as evidence that nobody wants to go first. 

All the while, he contended a company that wants to get around these types of rules will find ways to do it, which raised his conclusion that “We’re beating ourselves into a wall here” and the “whole bill could go away” and he’d be fine with it. 

The Personal Care Products Council’s Karen Ross and Amway’s Dirk Bloemendaal, Jr., said the industry is moving away from microbeads, but putting firm definitions to “nonbiodegradable” will limit what alternatives their in-house scientists can cook up. 

“We don’t want science to be precluded by the politics,” Bloemendaal said. 

Companies are moving quickly on replacements, he said, but it still takes time. Plastic currently doesn’t break down quickly in nature, but maybe the research and development teams will find something that does some day. 

And if they do, a Michigan law banning all plastic microbeads, for example, would stand in the way of innovation, the industry argues. 

Outman urged his colleagues to not let “perfect” be the enemy of the “good,” which is what he described his bill as being. His hope is the legislation can move like similar bills in Indiana, Maine and Wisconsin, where the votes were unanimous. 

But as it stands in the Michigan House Natural Resource Committee today, Outman is more than a microbead away from seeing that happen.

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