By the second half of last year, the chemists at Sun Laboratories Inc. figured they should get ahead of the curve on the growing controversy surrounding microplastic beads. The Chatsworth company is a manufacturer of tanning products, and it makes an exfoliating scrub that peels away dead skin cells customers use prior to tanning. There were news reports that the tiny beads were ending up in lakes, rivers and seas, where they were being ingested by fish – prompting environmental concern. So last fall, Sun reformulated its Exfoliant Body Gel to replace the microbeads with apricot kernels. “For us, it was the best of both worlds,” said Manager Joseph Trammell. “When we made the new batch, it was just that easy. All we did was reformulate it.” As it turns out, the company’s timing was impeccable. In February, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, co-authored a bill that would halt the retail sale of any cosmetic product that contains the minute plastics. As part of a coordinated push to ban microbeads, New York legislators have proposed a similar law that takes things one step further, banning the manufacturing of the polyethylene beads. Microplastics were found in the Los Angeles River and Pacific Ocean last year, which triggered the push for legislation. If passed, local cosmetic and personal care manufacturers could be forced to remove the tiny plastics from facial and body scrubs, shampoos and even toothpaste. Trammell expects the microbeads conflict to play out much like the ban of parabens that hit the industry in 2012. The widely used preservative in cosmetics was linked to breast cancer, and a successful push was made to eliminate it from many products. Most cosmetic companies now boast being “paraben free” in marketing as a sign of natural and higher quality products. Large cosmetics manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Colgate-Palmolive Co. in New York and Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, N.J. have pledged to eliminate the microbeads from their products regardless of how the legislation pans out, though no exact timetables have been provided. The Professional Beauty Association, a Scottsdale, Ariz. industry trade group, also supports the legislation and suggests using alternatives to microbeads such as crushed walnut shells, apricot seeds or fruit extracts. However, the group doesn’t underestimate the impact new legislation may bring to the industry. “With any change to product manufacturers, there is a very high potential for costs to be involved to reformulate a product,” said Myra Irizarry, director of government affairs for the group. “But there are already so many manufacturing industry leaders who have agreed to phase out their products by the end of the year of 2015. We too care about the environment and our oceans and lakes.” Pending legislation The miniscule size of the microbeads is the root of the problem. Since the beads measure less than one millimeter, sewage and water treatment facilities are often incapable of halting the flow into the waterways. And the amounts aren’t small, with some individual tubes containing upwards of 350,000 beads. 5 Gyres Institute, a Santa Monica-based research organization that studies plastic marine pollution, found the microbeads can’t be broken down in the environment so they are building up around the world. “It’s a great example of where producer responsibility is necessary to solve this problem worldwide,” said Marcus Eriksen, a scientist with the non-profit. 5 Gyres also found that the beads can absorb toxins such as DDT and other industrial chemicals as they bob around in lakes and oceans, leading to concern that they can be harmful to fish that ingest them. What’s more, there is the possibility of the toxins traveling back to the human body at the dinner table. 5 Gyres worked with Bloom on this legislation, as well as the bill proposed by New York legislators the same week. “By hitting these markets, it takes away a significant market share,” Eriksen said. “California and New York were the ideal places to launch the legislation.” If AB 1699 passes this session, Bloom’s law would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2016 and impose civil penalties of up to $2,500 a day for each violation. Those funds would be deposited into a plastic pollution fund to be established by the state. And while New York is going a step further with its ban, Assemblyman Bloom thinks the California version of the bill will have the same result. “If it can’t be sold, no point in making it,” argued Bloom. The bill is still at the committee level and it is still to be determined whether it will reach the Assembly floor. Eriksen from 5 Gyres said that while many in the industry accept the beads as being harmful to marine wildlife, the legislation is necessary to speed up how companies react. “They could take as long as they want,” he said, noting, though, that he is pleased he hasn’t received much pushback from cosmetics manufacturers. “It’s an obvious case of really bad design and having a disregard for the environment.” Local impact As for the microplastics found in the Los Angeles River, it is unclear how they found their way into the waterway. The Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys treats sewage from approximately 800,000 homes in the San Fernando Valley and claims “beads of this size would be captured at the water reclamation plant.” Most cosmetic samples range from about 200 to 800 microns or 0.2 to 0.8 millimeters in size, said Jimmy Tokeshi, a spokesman at the plant. He added that the plant captures microplastic beads as small as 10 microns or .01 millimeters. Proactiv Inc., the Palm Desert-based acne treatment company, is one company that could stand to lose significant business since the majority of its acne products contain polyethylene beads. The company has kiosks throughout the country, with more than 20 locations in the San Fernando Valley. “We are looking at what alternatives to polyethylene are available that will keep our product’s integrity in place while helping to reduce our environmental footprint,” said company spokesperson Sarah Lasky-Elison, in an email. Trammell at Sun Laboratories did not have an estimate of the financial impact this could cause for the company, but it wasn’t the determining factor in his decision. “It’s always about making sure the customer’s getting the best-quality product,” he said. “If we have to take a loss, so be it.” Another local cosmetics firm, Pravana International LLC in Woodland Hills, doesn’t even see a need for the beads at all. “The idea is to exfoliate the scalp. Some companies will use an almond base so you get the abrasive quality of a scrubber,” said Steve Goddard, founder of the salon hair care brand. Goddard said Pravana supports the legislation and his company has worked to eliminate plastic pollution. His company began manufacturing products with completely biodegradable bottles about two years ago. “We’ve never found the need to use any type of abrasive,” he added.