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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Lawmakers look at banning hazardous, yet popular microbeads

Chad Sokol Murrow News Service

OLYMPIA – Many facial soaps contain tiny, gritty pieces of plastic called microbeads, for scrubbing away dead skin and stubborn blemishes. Some Washington lawmakers want to ban them.

The exfoliating beads present an environmental hazard, researchers warn. Small enough to slip through bathroom drains, the beads end up in rivers, lakes and oceans around the world. They are easily swallowed by fish and other creatures and are known to cause cell damage, even death.

Plastic microbeads are found in a variety of products, from facial cleansers to toothpaste. Under the proposed law, it would be illegal to buy and sell those products starting in 2020, with penalties ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. Manufacturers would have to stop using them by 2018.

Some large corporations including Dove soap maker Unilever and Procter & Gamble Co., have agreed to phase out microbeads from their products.

“We don’t believe that there is such a thing as biodegradable synthetic plastics,” Brian Wishart, of the Washington Environmental Council, told the House Environment Committee Thursday. Plastic only breaks down into smaller, more hazardous pieces, he said.

A growing body of research supports this, scientists told the panel. In the late 1980s, researchers discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of plastic debris and chemical sludge that some say is larger than Texas. In 2013, University of Wisconsin researchers found there were as many as 1.7 million plastic particles per square mile in the Great Lakes.

A co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, said microbeads account for a large – if not the largest – portion of the plastic waste in marine ecosystems.

Plastic waste has troubled environmentalists for decades, but it also takes an economic toll. Last year, a United Nations report said it causes $13 billion a year in damage to marine life.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., has introduced a bill that would make a nationwide ban possible by 2018.

The Murrow News Service provides stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.
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