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Legislature bans microbeads in Erie County

Erie County legislators Thursday approved what appears to be the most comprehensive regulation in the country prohibiting microbead plastics in an effort to prevent pollution in the Niagara River and the Great Lakes,

What that means for consumers is that, six months from now, they will not be able to find on local store shelves some body lotions, facial scrubs and toothpastes. Cosmetic products that contain polyethylene microspheres are blamed for causing water pollution.

“It’s the most comprehensive law that we’ve seen in the United States. It doesn’t allow for any loopholes and it ensures that Lake Erie and our other waterways will be protected for the future,” said Erie County Legislator Patrick B. Burke, D-Buffalo, the bill’s sponsor.

Illinois has a statewide ban, the only one in the country, the first part which goes into effect in 2018.

The new law in Erie County law, on the other hand, would take effect in six months and be enforced by the county’s Division of Weights and Measures. Burke said the maximum fine for violators of the new law would not exceed $2,500.

A sparsely-attended public hearing on the microbead ban was held by the Legislature on July 20. Burke said only five members of the public signed up to speak at that hearing, and he said there was no input from the local retail community.

“The has virtually been no pushback from local retailers,” Burke said.

Arun Jain, a professor of marketing at the University at Buffalo, said Thursday that enforcement could be a problem with the new Erie County law. Jain said a maximum $2,500 fine would not likely be much of a deterrent to large national retailers that have outlets in Erie County.

“My feeling is that this will succeed only if the consumer is aware of it and the negative consequences of it, and they are bothered enough to say that we are not going to buy it and anybody who sells it should be punished,” said Jain.

Jain also said retailers affected by the local ban could take the county to court because of its financial impact on their bottom line.

“These products are sold all over the country in every store,” he said. “The legislation is not going after the user. The legislation is going after the seller, and the seller could say this is harming us because they’re encouraging people to go outside Erie County and buying things elsewhere.”

While the ban received bipartisan support in the Legislature, Republican-aligned lawmakers expressed concerns not only about enforcement, but whether or not the new law might run afoul of U.S. interstate commerce law. Burke said he was assured by the Erie County Attorney’s Office that it did not.