Microbeads: small plastic particles once embedded in everything from toothpaste to facewash, now slated for extinction within the next few years. A surprising turn of events, not simply because it happened but because it happened so fast. Progress on environmental issues is typically measured in years, not months. Yet in an era of perpetual political gridlock, federal legislation to ban microbeads from personal care products (H.R. 1321) was adopted on a bi-partisan vote with little industry opposition, making its way from introduction to implementation in less than a year. I prefer to see this not as an isolated incident or a convergence of factors that may be difficult to replicate, but rather a roadmap of what it takes to get things done effectively and (relatively) quickly in the modern political environment.

Baby Steps: Build Local Momentum

The key to a successful federal ban started locally, with individual states. Illinois adopted the first microbeads ban, after evidence of microbead pollution in the Great Lakes became a poignant political issue. Other states soon followed. In 2015 California became the tenth state to adopt some form of microbeads ban. Assembly Bill 888, co-sponsored by CASA and members of the environmental community, was a reasonable source control measure to prevent unnecessary plastic pollution. Here, the debates over the bill were less about whether to “ban the bead” and more about timing, process and the availability of substitute products.

What stands out is that, overall, this was a bottom up effort (state to federal) rather than a top down approach. Without successes in individual states, the federal legislation would almost certainly have died. Manufacturers of these products, faced with varying timeframes and standards for implementation across the nation, seemed more amenable to accepting federal intervention. This same circumstance presented itself in the context of plastic grocery bag bans…local governments in California began to “ban the bag” long before the statewide initiative to do so took hold. Perhaps this is the first lesson to be learned: Local or regional efforts are a crucial first step to effecting broad based change, and when faced with a patchwork of rules and regulations, industries may be more prone to compromise based on their preference for a universal and reliable solution.

Make it Personal

According to the Sacramento Bee, the California microbeads bill was one of the “key pieces of legislation” signed by the Governor at the end of the 2015 session. Articles about the bill garnered national attention through the Huffington Post and other media outlets. Why did the media latch on to this issue in particular?

Graphics certainly helped. The photographs of a penny or a finger displaying hundreds of tiny microbead particles made their proliferation easy to grasp. The scope of the problem was also a factor. Microbeads are ubiquitous, numbering in the millions, and could be present in a large number of rivers, lakes and oceans. The scope of the products (and the waters affected) reaches towns and cities across the country. This makes garnering a broad based audience far easier. Finally, the personal aspect is key. Most people use personal care products (e.g. toothpastes, facial scrubs, etc.) on a regular basis, and could look at the products in their own households, see watersheds in their own regions, and make the link between the two in their daily lives.

The Future

Could this approach work again to advance another important initiative? How do we build on one policy success and translate it into another? In some ways, the process has already started with the ongoing effort to implement industry funded pharmaceutical take-back programs across California.

Faced with a lack of safe and convenient disposal mechanisms for expired and unused medicines, consumers often flush medications down the toilet and out into the environment. CASA and other stakeholders have called for an extended producer responsibility (EPR) approach to addressing this harm, but so far no statewide (or federal) approach has come close to passage.

Pharmaceutical take-back shares the hallmarks that made the microbeads approach successful. Much like microbeads, this is an issue with a heavy source control component facing strong industry opposition. Perhaps more importantly from an advocacy standpoint, the products themselves are both ubiquitous and highly personal – virtually everyone will take prescription or over the counter medication at some point in their lives. Proponents are also building local momentum, this time working in cities and counties rather than individual states. Previous statewide efforts to implement an industry funded program stalled, but in the interim local ordinances have pushed forward. Emboldened by the success of Alameda County, several other California counties have adopted pharmaceutical take back ordinances, and even now others (including Los Angeles County) are considering doing the same. Industry, again potentially faced with a patchwork of programs, regulations and issues, may start to see a statewide solution as more viable.

Will this lead to a success similar to the microbeads effort? Only time will tell. The pharmaceutical industry is well funded and the ramifications of holding pharmaceutical distributors responsible for the lifecycle of their products are far reaching. What do you think? Are pharmaceuticals the next microbeads, or is a different approach needed? We want to hear your thoughts!