12/28/2015 08:44 am ET | Updated Dec 28, 2016

Microbeads, Marine Debris, Regulation and the Precautionary Principle

A small, one could say, micro-sized miracle took place earlier this month as the United States Congress enacted the Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015. This legislation requires that manufacturers remove the beads, largely used in cosmetics, from their products by July 2017. These beads are too small to be stopped by sewage treatment plants and, once in the waters, attract toxic chemicals and find their way into fish that eat them as if they were food. We in turn eat the fish and unknowingly ingest the toxics. The miracle is that the U.S. Congress passed a piece of environmental law. According to John Schwartz of the New York Times:

"A bill to protect the environment was introduced in the House in March. In early December, the House passed the bill. A week later, the Senate passed it as well, without changing a word and by unanimous consent, just before Congress left town on Friday. That is the strangely charmed life of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which sailed through Congress in an age when most legislation plods."

As Mr. Schwartz' piece indicates, there were many good reasons that the law was passed. First, many large manufacturers were already dropping their use of the microbeads, having learned of its environmental impact. Second, a number of states had already enacted statewide bans and others were considering them. But the state laws were inconsistent and would make doing business difficult for cosmetic firms. National legislation was better for business. Business lobby groups and the cosmetics industry supported the national ban and so there was really no significant opposition to it from anywhere.

Microbeads are a small part of the much larger problem of marine debris. As more people consume more products that are made of substances that do not biodegrade easily, if at all, the volume of plastics that end up in our waterways continues to grow. The cost of cleaning up the oceans is impossible to quantify, and communities near the water are spending more and more money trying to clean their beaches and prevent trash from entering the water in the first place. Last spring I advised a group of Columbia students in our MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program who worked for our local environmental agencies to quantify the costs of preventing trash from entering the waterways in New York and New Jersey. The group surveyed municipalities along the Hudson-Raritan Estuary and learned that "these municipalities spend $59,063,285 dollars a year on marine debris waste management activities. This translates to a per capita cost of $6.16, and $75,407 per square mile."

The problem of marine debris is large and grows every day. Writing in National Geographic Laura Parker observes:

"The numbers are staggering: There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that mass, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea. Scientists call these statistics the "wow factor" of ocean trash. The tallies, published last year in three separate scientific papers, are useful in red-flagging the scope of the problem for the public. But beyond the shock value, just how does adding up those rice-size fragments of plastic help solve the problem? Although scientists have known for decades about the accumulating mass of ocean debris and its deadly consequences for seabirds, fish, and marine animals, the science of sea trash is young and full of as-yet unsolved mysteries. Indeed, until scientists learn more about where ocean trash is, how densely plastic accumulates in different ocean ecosystems, and how it degrades, they can't really calculate the damage it's causing. There are still big, basic questions: As it degrades, do plastic toxins seep into the marine environment? If so, how and in what amounts?"

We know that there is a lot of junk in the ocean, but our knowledge of its environmental impact remains superficial and requires additional observation, data collection and analysis. We also need a new approach to introducing new technologies into economic production. Except for new drug and medical technologies which must be tested before they are allowed to be sold, other new technologies are introduced first and only regulated after damage is proven. The introduction of drugs conforms to the precautionary principle, the introduction of other technologies conform to what we could call the reactionary principle: react after the fact and only if the damage is beyond question.

We are all like the canary that used to be lowered into the mine to see if the air was poisoned. If the canary came back dead, the miners were not allowed into the mine. If it came back alive the miners could go to work. In a more crowded world with more and more technology being developed that can damage living fauna, flora and beings, we need to understand the full impact of the new technologies we are developing. This requires a deeper understanding of earth systems science and a deeper understanding of the main and side effects of all new technologies.

The critique of prior testing of new technology is that it would inhibit innovation and the development of new technologies. It might do that, and inhibiting damaging technologies would be a good thing. There are already a number of constraints on innovation such as unimaginative management, inadequate finance, and inadequate institutional capacity. Adding a regulatory hurdle would slow things down a bit, but it would also reduce the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. In the case of microbeads, sewage treatment plant operators could have commented before the technology was ever used, and the same substitutes that will now replace the beads could have been used from the start. How many other easily replaceable technologies are now in use and damaging the planet? We don't know and have no way of easily finding out.

While policy attention is focused on large, world-scale issues such as climate change, the planet continues to die the death of a thousand cuts. We ignore the day-to-day destruction that derives from an economic paradigm that has not yet internalized the need to assess the environmental impacts of new technologies and products. It is clear that the hunger for economic growth and wealth pushes business and governments to ignore environmental impacts that are considered an inevitable byproduct of development. But this fails to account for the costs that will inevitably be borne when the damage must be cleaned up. A more careful production process with pollution control technologies may cost more in the short run, but it saves money in the long run. And to the degree that businesses are convinced that they must adhere to environmental standards to avoid sanctions, they will push their engineers and production managers to develop innovative methods of controlling environmental impacts.

End of pipeline effluent standards and end of smokestack emission standards are necessary to ensure environmental quality. But so too is prior testing of new technologies and products before they are permitted into the marketplace. While some toxic substances degrade and pose little long-term harm to ecosystems, others are highly persistent and find their way up the food chain and can affect human health. The success of the microbead legislation is important and indicates that it is possible for the United States Congress to find common ground and ban unneeded toxics. The deeper change needed is far tougher and is a long way off. We need to spend more money to better understand the impact of technology on the natural environment and human health. And we must ensure that new technologies are only introduced after we have assessed their impact on the planet.