LOS ANGELES – In 2015, President Obama signed into law the bipartisan Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, banning certain types of small plastic pellets used in some exfoliating and cosmetic products beginning in 2017.
For environmental lawyer Lisa Kaas Boyle, it's one step in a very long history of working to make companies accountable for their impact on the environment and human health.
Since working at New Orleans' Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic in 1990, Boyle has done a lot of work with the California legislature and advocacy groups to try to limit the use of single-use plastics and other environmental threats.
“It's a miracle,” Boyle said of the law's passage, speaking to the Northern California Record.
Boyle explained that although natural materials such as almond shells and rice husks can provide efficient exfoliation, the cheap plastic beads actually don't work. Also, she said, they don't get caught in wastewater treatment systems, so they get flushed out to sea, and end up attracting oily substances with toxins such as motor oil, pesticides and herbicides often attached.
“They’re horrible for the environment,” Boyle said. “The fish that you eat are eating your exfoliants.”
Beebe said moves like the banning of microbeads are related to the goals of a movement she calls environmental justice – a movement that acknowledges that environmentalism isn't just about protecting animal and insect species. Poor people, she says, are often among those most negatively impacted by carcinogens and other health threats from single-use plastics and petrochemical products.
One example? Plastic bags.
Plastic bags, Boyle said, are a top ocean polluter, and they’re one of the products targeted by environmentalists who want to clean up the water. Boyle said plastic bags are an excellent example of single-use plastics that are totally unnecessary and harmful to the environment.
Citing statistics that show we only recycle about 5 percent of all plastic used, Boyle said wasteful use of plastics is still rampant in today’s society. Although there's been increasing knowledge about the negatives of plastic products, she said, people keep using them anyway.
“Amazingly – because our laws are so pitiful – our government is not at all protecting us from carcinogens,” Boyle said.
Boyle contrasted America's laws to Europe's cautionary principle, saying that in the U.S. chemicals are considered OK to use unless there is a very clearly proven health threat. That allows many potential toxic and harmful products to fall through the cracks in terms of enforcing public health and safety.
Things such as plastic bags and straws also contribute to the huge gyres in the ocean that are becoming a massive problem for the biosphere.
“There's no way to clean up the plastics when they are in the ocean,” Boyle said.
None of that, she added, fazes the companies.
“They want to use the cheapest ingredient, and they want us to keep buying it every day,” Boyle said.
Nevertheless, she said, environmental activists are still working to fight back against the proliferation of harmful single-use plastics products – one step at a time.