OSWEGO, NY – Standing at the Port of Oswego Marina today (Oct. 27), U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand urged Congress to pass new legislation to ban plastic microbeads in personal care products. There are many other safer options that can be used instead of microbeads, she said.
The senator was joined by Terry Hammill, chair of the Port of Oswego Authority’s Board of Directors; Sarah Eckel, legislative and policy director, Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Oswego Mayor Tom Gillen; and David Turner, director of the Oswego County Department of Community Development, Tourism and Planning.
Plastic microbeads are found in personal care products like facial scrubs, body washes, hand cleansers, and toothpaste.
“Many people, including myself, have used products with microbeads,” Gillibrand told the crowd. “They are tiny plastic spheres.”
These products are designed to be rinsed down the drain. However, the microbeads are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants, she added.
They are subsequently found in large bodies of water, such as the Great Lakes, where they concentrate toxins and can be ingested by birds and fish, posing serious environmental and health risks.
High concentrations of microbeads have been discovered in three of the Great Lakes.
Recent reports identified thousands of plastic particles per square kilometer in Lake Erie and a study last year found up to 1.1 million particles per square kilometer in Lake Ontario, the senator said.
These microbeads are so small that it can be surprising to see just how harmful they can be, she added.
This could have a devastating effect on the Great Lakes fish populations, hurting the $7 billion recreational fishing industry, tourism industry, and the general economic well-being of the entire region.
“Microbeads have already caused significant ecological damage to the Great Lakes region and they will continue to do so until they are removed from the marketplace,” said Senator Gillibrand. “We have to make sure that Congress passes this ban on microbeads. These plastic particles fill the water, attract pollutants and harm not only fish and birds, but the people in this region who rely on them for food and wellbeing. Banning harmful plastic microbeads is the best solution to this damaging environmental problem.”
It also endangers the commercial and recreational industries, she added.
Multiple states including New York, are working to solve the problem at the state level. The state of Illinois has already banned plastic microbeads in consumer products, with legislation being considered in New York, Ohio and California.
“We can’t solve this problem locally alone,” she said. “Banning microbeads at the national level would help keep our waterways safe across the country. I look forward to passing this important piece of legislation.”
“The city of Oswego is the Port City of Central New York. We are the gateway to the Great Lakes. It’s an incredible location. Any time we can help make this a cleaner, safer environment we’re on board for that,” Mayor Gillen said.
With 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer, the levels of microbeads in Lake Ontario are the highest in the Great Lakes, he added.
“These microbeads soak up toxins like a sponge and these harmful chemicals can be passed on to humans and wildlife. It is critical for our environment, economy and quality of life to address this danger and ban microbeads,” said Mayor Gillen.
“Plastic microbeads can accumulate toxic chemicals and be consumed by fish and wildlife. They are unnecessarily polluting New York’s waters, wildlife and threatening public health. We are essentially bathing in plastic,” said Eckel. “Safer, bio-degradable, non-polluting alternatives to plastic microbeads are readily available and cost effective. CCE commends Senator Gillibrand for her leadership in working to protect the health of the Great Lakes and all of our treasured waterbodies from plastic pollution.”
When they get into the water, they attract all those toxic chemicals “and they move up the food chain, eventually ending up on our dinner plate,” she said. “This emerging threat is why we are all standing here. We can do something about this now. There are already solutions on the market.”
Gillibrand noted they are privately trying to encourage companies to change their products and actually comply voluntarily.
“Some times, it’s just an awareness that’s necessary,” she said. “So, I think with advocacy, we can move the ball forward. We can still clean it up. We’ve had this problem before when we didn’t realize something is a pollutant until after we used it.”
She cited PCBs as an example.
“Not that long ago, there was some question about the longevity of the Great Lakes ecosystems. Today, through successful initiatives with our state and federal partners, these treasured natural resources have proved their resilience and they continue to provide immeasurable benefit to our residents, our businesses and our recreational visitors from around the world. We applaud the Senator for her proactive efforts to make sure they continue to do so,” Turner said. “Literally hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the shores of our Great Lakes to enjoy the great fishery that we have every year.”
It generates more than $40 million a year for the county, he added.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has spearheaded efforts in New York to ban the beads and released a report finding that up to 19 tons of plastic microbeads wash down drains each year and into New York’s waterways.
They can last for decades and when found in oceans and lakes, pose environmental and health risks because of the pollutants they can attract and carry.
Wildlife and aquatic animals ingest the beads, which causes internal issues and exposure to concentrated levels of toxins.
In July, Senator Gillibrand urged EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Interagency Task Force to include microbeads and microplastics as contaminants in the GLRI Action Plan II FY15-19.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative leverages federal resources to forge initiatives that improve water quality and protect native species.
After releasing its GLRI Action Plan II for fiscal years 15-19, EPA has opened a comment period.
By adding microbeads and microplastics to the list of emerging contaminants in the Great Lakes, there will be opportunities to better study the microbead and microplastic problem, allowing for the development of proper remediation, the senator noted.
“We can clean this up. It’s going to take an investment, though. It’s best to stop using it today so it costs less to clean it up tomorrow,” she said.
Right now, it is proposed legislation and no timetable or price tag have been attached.