MPs urge government to protect oceans with a ban on plastic microbeads

MPs urge government to protect oceans with a ban on plastic microbeads
MPs are calling for the government to issue a ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetics by the end of 2017, as they believe a voluntary commitment by cosmetic companies is not enough to stem the rise in plastic entering the oceans.

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than five millimetres (mm) in diameter, and often come in the form of microbeads, up to 680 tonnes of which are intentionally added to cosmetic products such as toothpaste, scrubs and shaving gels as an exfoliant.

Because microplastics, the dominant forms of plastic in the ocean, are small enough to be ingested by marine life, their presence in the marine environment can cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem, and according to the group of MPs tasked with assessing the environmental actions of the government, up to 100,000 particles of plastic are washed down the plug during a single shower.

The current cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which was appointed in July 2015, has today (24 August) published a new report ‘Environmental Impact of Microplastics’ in which it also claims cosmetics companies are not labelling their products clearly.

In the event a full ban is not put in place, the EAC would like to see a clearer labelling system during the phasing out of microbeads to provide ‘transparency for customers’.

EAC recommendations in the report include the formation of a research strategy to assess and mitigate microplastic pollution and the investigation of the human impacts of such pollution.

The committee also believes the capturing of microplastics should be improved through measures such as better filtration systems for washing machines and waste and water treatment processes.

Commitment to reducing the wider problem of microplastics

According to the EAC report, between 80,000 and 219,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the oceans every year in Europe with around 86 tonnes of this coming from facial exfoliants used in the UK alone. In addition, it reported that ‘a single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean’.

Because of this, many large cosmetics companies have made voluntary commitments to gradually reduce the use of microbeads in their products by 2020.

Despite this commitment, the EAC believes a ban would have ‘advantages for consumers in the industry in terms of consistency, universality and confidence’.

The EAC claims the starting point for the microplastics inquiry, which was launched in March, was the ‘significant public concern around the environmental impact of microbeads’.

During the inquiry, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) released ‘Marine microplastic pollution’, a briefing paper summarising the current knowledge regarding microplastics, which was prepared to inform the EAC.

MPs urge government to protect oceans with a ban on plastic microbeads
Microplastics among plankton
Following the publication of the report, Mary Creagh, Chair of the EAC, warned that the committee could seek a ban on microbeads if cosmetic companies did not do enough to tackle the issue.

Although not all microplastic pollution in the ocean is due to microbeads (some comes from the degradation of larger pieces of plastic or in the form of synthetic fibres), the EAC feels that addressing the issue of microbeads would ‘show a commitment to reducing the wider problem of microplastics’ which ‘cannot be set aside once microbeads have been dealt with.’

Voluntary approach “won’t wash”

Mary Creagh, Chair of the EAC, said: “Trillions of tiny pieces of plastic are accumulating in the world’s oceans, lakes and estuaries, harming marine life and entering the food chain. The microbeads in scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes are an avoidable part of this plastic pollution problem. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean.

“Cosmetic companies’ voluntary approach to phasing out plastic microbeads simply won’t wash. We need a full legal ban, preferably at an international level as pollution does not respect borders. If this isn’t possible after our vote to leave the EU, then the government should introduce a national ban. The best way to reduce this pollution is to prevent plastic being flushed into the sea in the first place.

“Most people would be aghast to learn that their beauty products are causing this ugly pollution. Cosmetic companies need to come clean and clearly label their products containing plastics. Shockingly, a plate of six oysters can contain up to 50 particles of plastic. More research is needed on the impact of microplastic consumption on human health.”

For more information about the impact of plastic on the marine food web (and on your own dinner plate), see Resource’s feature article.

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