EAC could seek ban after microplastic research

Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), says that a ban on microbeads in cosmetic products could be sought if cosmetic companies do not take action themselves, after a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) briefing summarised research into the environmental impact of pollutant microplastics.

The briefing, ‘Marine microplastic pollution’, has been published ahead of a hearing at Parliament on 8 June to inform the cross-party EAC’s inquiry into the issue of microbeads in cosmetics, which was launched in March. It summarises the current state of research on the impact of microplastics in the marine environment and includes strategies to reduce their pollution.

Many cosmetics use large amounts of microbeads as exfoliants
Microplastics are plastic pieces under 5mm in size that result from the degradation of larger fragments of plastic or are manufactured as microbeads for use in products such as toothpastes, cleaning products and exfoliants.

According to the POST report, microplastics are the major type of plastic found in the ocean, with research carried out by Imperial College London estimating that there were 15-51 trillion particles weighing in the range of 93-236 tonnes present in ocean surface waters alone in 2014. Last month, Eunomia Research & Consulting released research estimating that 950,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the ocean every year.

The EAC will use the information to question representatives from the cosmetics industry, including Cosmetics Europe, a representative of cosmetic companies across Europe, this week. Evidence has already been received from a number of stakeholders, including the British Plastics Federation, Veolia, Novamont and a variety of academic institutions.

Marine life and human health impact

Plastic’s strength and durability, two reasons why it is so widely used, also make it resistant to degradation, and microplastics are now a common contaminant of the world’s oceans and have been found in estuaries, sediments, lakes and even arctic sea ice.

According to the POST briefing, microplastics can be ingested by marine life and studies have found them in zooplankton, mussels, oysters, shrimp, marine worms, fish, seals and whales. One study from Plymouth University found microplastic in 36.5 per cent of fish analysed from the English Channel. However, the risk it carries for marine life and to human life is not yet clear, though scientists are beginning to investigate the matter. 

Some laboratory studies have shown that microplastics can affect reproduction and feeding of certain species but there is ‘limited evidence’ on their interaction with human tissues. They have, however, been shown to increase insect populations by providing an increased surface for egg laying, to change the microbial communities present in seawater and alter the heat absorbance of sediments that could affect sex ratios in sea turtles.

Research is being carried out across the world, and on Friday, just prior to the briefing’s publication, a study by researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden concluded that fish that were exposed to microplastics as larvae prefer to eat plastic rather than their natural prey, stunting their development and making them less aware of predators, an impact that could have ‘profound’ effects on aquatic ecosystems.

The briefing explains that the mechanism by which microplastics may cause toxicity is unclear and therefore so is the risk of ingestion. Toxicity could arise as a result of the polymer itself, could be due to additives associated with the microplastics or could result from the association of chemicals after entering the ocean.

Furthermore, in an interview for the cover feature for the latest issue of Resource, Bonnie Monteleone from the University of North Carolina Wilmington suggested that “evidence is pointing to the fact that, most probably, chemicals [transferred from plastic to marine organisms] are getting into our blood through the foods that we eat, especially fish.”

Scale of the problem

EAC could seek ban after microplastic research
The total extent of microplastic pollution in the ocean is unknown for many reasons. There is no standardisation of monitoring techniques with a wide range of methods used, and current estimates are based on surface pollution so can’t be extended to cover pollution levels on the ocean floor. Most measurements of microplastics are based on particles collected from mesh plankton nets. Smaller particles will not be collected and so cannot be measured, leading POST to say that current estimates are likely to be underestimated.

The sources of microplastics are also unclear. Although it is possible to identify different types of plastics, when the fragments become very small this becomes nearly impossible. The three largest sources are thought to be textiles, large pieces of plastic debris and microbeads.

However, the briefing does state that in the UK an estimated 16-86 tonnes of microplastics leaked into the environment are produced solely from facial exfoliants every year. The Eunomia figures suggest that worldwide this figure reaches 35,000 tonnes.

Preventing microplastic pollution

Waste water treatment plants are not designed to filter microplastics, and the technology does not exist to remove them from the ocean, so it is generally agreed that the most effective way of reducing microplastic contamination is to stop plastics reaching the ocean in the first place.

The briefing suggests various approaches, which could be used, such as changing the design of plastic products and packaging, improving plastic waste facilities and management and changing plastic use and littering through education and public engagement.

Plastic bags charge schemes have successfully reduced their use by 71 per cent in Wales and by 80 per cent in Scotland, and the POST suggests that widening the range of packaging that can be recycled at the kerbside as well as increasing deposit-return schemes could also have a positive effect on microplastic pollution levels.

So far, at least 25 countries have implemented national policies to decrease or ban the usage of microbeads in cosmetic products, including Canada and the USA, which introduced the Microbead Free Waters Act in December 2015.

‘Cosmetic companies need to clean up their act’

Presently, 25 UK companies are or intend to become microbead-free, as are the large multinationals Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive and P&G, but Creagh, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, has suggested that a ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetics could be sought in the UK if companies do not take measures to reduce their number.

Commenting on the POST briefing, she said: “This paper raises important questions about the damage microplastics could be doing to our marine environment. We know shellfish and fish are ingesting plastic fragments, what we don’t know is the effect this is having on them and on human health.

“The most effective way to reduce microplastic pollution is to prevent plastic entering our waters in the first place. Cosmetic companies need to clean up their act and phase out the plastic microbeads causing marine pollution. If they refuse to act, the Environmental Audit Committee will consider calling for a full ban on microbeads.”

The POST briefing on marine microplastic pollution can be downloaded from the Parliament website

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