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Michigan doesn’t have a set plan for preventing microplastic pollution. Could that change?

Plastic pollution collected in the Great Lakes. Microplastics can start out small, but more often break down over time from larger pieces of plastic, like clothing, water bottles, plastic bags, cigarette butr and construction foam.
This image shows some microplastic particles mixed among other pieces of plastic pollution collected in the Great Lakes. Microplastics can start out small, or break down over time from larger pieces of plastic, like clothing, water bottles, plastic bags, cigarette butts and construction foam. (Photo: Michigan Microplastics Coalition)
• Microplastic pollution is present in every Great Lake, including in food webs and in our bodies.
• Michigan has no statewide monitoring, regulation and prevention strategy.
• Five bills, still in the draft phase, seek to change that.

Michigan might soon see legislation aimed at controlling microplastics — tiny pieces of plastic that accumulate in ecosystems and our bodies.

A package of five bills still in the draft phase would require testing and regulation at state agencies, as well as target common sources of microplastics.

State Rep. Rachel Hood, a Democrat from Grand Rapids’ 81st District, is drafting the legislation.

“People in Michigan are crazy about their water in the best ways,” Hood said. “Overall, we see an enormous amount of support from constituents on water protection legislation in Michigan … whether it’s polluter pay, microplastics or working on the elimination of PFAS in our water bodies.”

There are two kinds of microplastics. Primary microplastics, which start as small pieces less than five millimeters in diameter, and secondary microplastics, which break down over time from larger sources, like construction foam, clothing or plastic bottles.

There is currently no microplastics legislation on the books in Michigan. Right now, guidelines are administered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration through the federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.

The draft bills would also add onto state legislation introduced to the House in 2022.

That bill, which hasn’t moved out of the House, was introduced by State Representative Laurie Pohutsky, a Democrat from House District 17 in Wayne County. The legislation focused only on microbeads in over-the-counter drugs and cosmetics in Michigan.

Art Hirsch, an activist and educator with the Michigan Microplastics Coalition who sought out Representative Hood to work on the draft legislation, says passing bills like these would be a big step.

“This would basically make Michigan a leader in water quality in regards to really becoming progressive and starting to address a water quality pollutant now, when we know it as a potential problem,” he said.

In 2022, California became the first state to adopt a statewide microplastics strategy that went beyond banning microbeads or certain single-use plastics, like grocery bags or straws.

Various Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces have piecemeal monitoring programs that sample for microplastics. But there is still no formal binational program.

And no Great Lakes state has passed legislation for a standardized statewide regulation, monitoring and prevention strategy.

Here’s what the draft package of bills would change in Michigan (if they remain in their current form).

Bill #1: Microbeads

The first bill would propose to ban the use and the discharge of microbeads into the waters of the state of Michigan.

“It deals with microbead pollutant sources from industrial users and domestic products that go beyond the requirements in the United States’ Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015,” Representative Rachel Hood said.

That federal law prohibits the “manufacturing, packaging and distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing microbeads” and over-the-counter drugs, like toothpaste.

Environmental groups say the bill was a step in the right direction, but failed to address non-rinse off cosmetics containing microbeads. They also argued that microbeads are only one of many sources of microplastic.

Bill #2: Statewide Strategy

“Bill #2 would require [the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy], to the extent that funds are available from bonds and other sources, to adapt and implement a Michigan statewide microplastics strategy,” said Representative Hood.

She says it would allow EGLE, along with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, to enter contracts with “Great Lakes research institutes.” The idea is to contribute standardized research that would guide the statewide microplastics strategy.

Researchers say standardized sampling and monitoring is crucial. Right now, different organizations use different testing methods, making it harder to find and compare data.

Bill #3: Nurdles

The third bill would ask EGLE to create a program to better control the discharge of nurdles in Michigan.

Nurdles are tiny pellets of pre-production plastic. Nearly all plastic products start as a nurdle: They are the building blocks of water bottles, grocery bags, cups, sunglasses, artificial Christmas trees and more.

But because they are small and buoyant, they are hard to control and can spread by wind and water. One study estimates nurdles began entering marine environments at the outset of mass plastic production in the 1940s.

Bill #4: Washing Machines

This bill would require that after January 1, 2029, all new washing machines sold for residential use in Michigan contain a mesh filtration system.

That’s because our clothes, often made of synthetic fibers, shed small pieces of plastic through laundry wastewater.

Chelsea Rochman, who studies plastic pollution at the University of Toronto, says this can be a good approach.

“As people are putting these different bills together, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to this issue,” she said.

Rochman says broad monitoring efforts are needed but targeting known sources individually, like washing machines, can go a long way.

Bill #5: Water Testing

The fifth and final bill would require EGLE to begin four consecutive years of testing and reporting on the amount of microplastics in public drinking water supplies — those results would have to be disclosed to the public.

The presence of microplastics has been documented at all levels of the food web, as well as in aquatic ecosystems and the atmosphere. Research has found microplastics in every Great Lake and in several inland lakes and tributaries in the Great Lakes basin.

Microplastics have also been found in human bodies, including in lung tissue and placenta. One study on mice found microplastic in nearly every organ and in urine and feces. The effects of plastic accumulation are still largely unknown.

“We’re ingesting this plastic through the food that we eat, the air that we breathe and the water that we drink,” said Art Hirsch, with the Michigan Microplastics Coalition. “It’s not acceptable that we have to do that.”

The bills are still in a draft and review phase, so details could change, says State Representative Rachel Hood. She says she hopes to introduce the bills to the House later this year.

Ellie Katz joined IPR in June 2023. She reports on science, conservation and the environment.