Background: Why are we doing this?

The Ecocycling Project has its roots in a multi-disciplinary team that was commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Science and Technical Advisory Committee to look at the issue of cosmetic microbeads in the Chesapeake Bay. Before our group had finished writing our report, federal legislation in the U.S. was passed which banned all plastic microbeads in certain rinse-off cosmetic products.  This legislation (the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, hereafter the “Act”) was passed with overwhelming support in Congress and signed into law on December 28, 2015.

While laudable in its intent, the Act is limited in scope, as it addresses only one very small source of microplastic pollution, and furthermore the Act makes no distinction between typical plastics and those plastics that are degradable and environmentally responsible. Interestingly, the lack of standards and scientific consensus defining environmentally responsible plastics contributed to the restrictive wording of the Act; specifically, its prohibition of all plastic microbeads, irrespective of the plastic.

Our group analyzed the history and wording of the various state and federal bills during this process. The first state to pass legislation governing cosmetic microbeads was Illinois in 2014.  Unfortunately, the final wording of the bill had considerable loopholes which would have permitted many environmentally questionable plastics to be used, as described elsewhere on this site, and it was used as a template for proposed bills in other states.  Environmental groups that had supported the legislation felt that the letter of the Illinois law did not match the spirit of the law, and sought to eliminate such loopholes in California’s legislation, which banned all plastic microbeads.  The California law served as a template for the federal law.  This analysis (along with the Ecocycling standard described below) is the subject of a paper submitted to the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

At first glance, it may seem trivial to include definitional language in legislation or regulation that carves out environmentally safe and sustainable plastics (or other materials). Simple, you say.  Let’s start with non-toxic, biodegradable plastics.

OK, let’s begin to define non-toxic, biodegradable plastics. We’re still trying to come up with a comprehensive and concise definition of plastics, and we’ve been thinking about it for a long time.  As for “biodegradable”, almost everything is biodegradable on a geologic time scale.  What is the appropriate time scale?  And in which environments?  Biodegradability in a compost heap is a lot easier than biodegradability in a marine environment, let alone the anoxic conditions at the bottom of a deep ocean.  How much of a material must biodegrade?  100%?  50%?  Where does one draw the line?  What about other forms of degradation? As for toxicity, in what organisms? And how much of a material?  Pure water in sufficient quantities can be fatal to humans. Irrespective of material composition, particular sizes of a material can be problematic, for example, through inhalation or ingestion.  Moreover, toxicity of plastics is often due to additives (e.g., plasticizers, stabilizers, etc.).  How does one account for that?

As we tried to figure out better language for a microbeads bill (e.g., in other countries around the world), two things became very apparent:

  1. It was extremely difficult to come up with improved language that faithfully captured the intent of the legislation; and
  2. If our multi-disciplinary team, with substantial expertise in relevant fields, no time constraints, and no outside influences applying pressure, had such difficulty, how could one expect a legislator to get it right?

Moreover, the unintended consequences off well-intentioned but ill-informed can be staggering. For example, California’s Technical Bulletin 117, enacted in 1975 and finally revised almost 40 years later, resulted in the widespread exposure of Americans to toxic flame retardants used in furniture and other products.

One might reply: “This really doesn’t matter, right? It’s only microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics.”  Wrong.  Cosmetic microbeads were an easy target.  They are used in relatively low volumes, there are available drop-in replacements for plastic, and their inclusion is not compelling from an economic or health perspective.  But what about bans or restrictions on plastic cutlery?  Or grocery bags?  Or plastic packaging?  Or microfibers from synthetic clothing?

Legislation/regulation governing plastics are being pursued all over the globe. Given the larger problem of plastic debris in the environment, and the 600+ billion pounds of plastics produced annually, and in many cases the deficiencies of potential alternatives (including cost, performance, and/or environmental impact), it is incredibly important to have balanced, informed legislation.  We believe that a patchwork collection of bans on plastics in various applications and in various jurisdictions is not the best way forward.  Instead, development of sustainable plastics that are reasonably safe environmentally should be encouraged, while environmentally harmful materials (including additives) should be discouraged.

Rather than asking legislators in various jurisdictions to come up with that language on the fly, we believe that it makes sense for an informed community to try to do so in advance by putting forth a scientifically vetted standard that policy-makers can use as a reference when creating legislation that rejects non-sustainable and hazardous products, and/or incentivizes innovation of products that are sustainable and safe. Accordingly, we have proposed a standard for Ecocyclable plastics that distinguishes between environmentally friendly plastic compositions and those that are toxic, bioaccumulative, and/or persistent.

We recognize that our proposed standard is imperfect. It can be improved, and we welcome any efforts to do so.  We are soliciting feedback, comments, and suggestions for improvement.  Furthermore, we are proposing a Workshop to take place in 2018 where interested parties will attempt to refine the Ecocyclable standard.  We encourage attendees from the chemical industry, environmental groups, academic scientists, policymakers, and anyone else having an interest to attend.  If you are interested in attending, please send an email to jpmcde@wm.edu.