A UK ban on ocean-polluting microbeads gets closer, but we’re not quite there

Cosmetics producers ‘all over the shop’ in phasing out polluting plastic microbeads
Microbeads are found in a wide range of cosmetic and personal care products
The banning of the use of cosmetic microbeads came much closer over the weekend as Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom announced plans to stop the sale and manufacture of products containing the harmful pollutants.

Microbeads are the tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimetres wide that are often used as exfoliants in cosmetic and personal care products like face wash, body scrubs and toothpaste.

Because they are so small, these beads are washed down the drains of showers and sinks and slip through water filtration systems and into waterways. Here, they are often mistaken as food by fish and crustaceans. The full extent of the damage that they cause to sea animals, and the humans later consuming them, is still being researched, but studies have already found that marine wildlife is exposed to thousands of tonnes of newly-flushed beads every year and that a plate of six oysters can contain up to 50 particles of plastic.

While not all exfoliants are made of the damaging plastic, and can be made of organic materials that do not harm marine ecosystems, those that will likely be the focus of any ban are beads made of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon.

Consultation to consider potential ban

While not definitively announcing a ban, Leadsom stated that a consultation of industry and environmental groups, as well as other interested parties, will be held later this year to explore how a ban could be introduced and when to bring it in.

This will be carried out with the intention of changing legislation at some point next year, though that will not necessarily mean that the beads are banned from 2017.

In December last year, US President Barack Obama signed the ‘Microbead-Free Waters Act’, which will phase out cosmetics containing synthetic plastic microbeads from July 2017, with a complete ban coming into effect on 1 January 2018. Any UK legislation decided next year will likely have a similar lead-in time.

At the same time, evidence will be gathered on the extent of the environmental impacts of microbeads found elsewhere, such as in household and industrial cleaning products, before considering what more can be done in future to tackle other plastics, for example microfibres, which enter the marine environment.

Beads ‘wholly unnecessary’ given existence of harmless alternatives

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) initially hoped by that a ban could be approved at a European level, as a national ban would not necessarily stop the sale of European-produced products in Britain. However, with the future of the UK’s relationship with European law currently in flux, it seems that the government is willing to bite the bullet and enforce national restrictions.

A UK ban on ocean-polluting microbeads gets closer, but we’re not quite there
Many cosmetics use large amounts of microbeads as exfoliants
Commenting on the plans for a ban, Leadsom said: “Most people would be dismayed to know the face scrub or toothpaste they use was causing irreversible damage to the environment, with billions of indigestible plastic pieces poisoning sea creatures. Adding plastic to products like face washes and body scrubs is wholly unnecessary when harmless alternatives can be used.

“This is the next step in tackling microplastics in our seas following the success of the 5p plastic bag charge, and I look forward to working with industry and environmental groups.

“This government is committed to its promise to be the first generation ever to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited, and together we can bring an end to these harmful plastics clogging up our oceans.”

Voluntary approach not working

A number of UK cosmetics and toiletries companies have already taken voluntary measures to phase out microbeads from their products (a full list of companies that have done so can be found on the website of the Beat the Microbead campaign).

However, an inquiry carried out by Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) this summer concluded that this voluntary approach was not working and that a blanket ban was needed to stem the rise in plastics entering the ocean.

According to the EAC’s report on the issue, while microbeads only make up a small proportion of the microplastics entering the ocean (up to four per cent), they present an eminently avoidable and controllable element. The committee found during its months of evidence and research gathering that a single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles being flushed into the sewage system.

A UK ban on ocean-polluting microbeads gets closer, but we’re not quite there
Microplastics among plankton

Environmental consultancy Eunomia Research and Consulting, meanwhile has found that cosmetic microbeads make up 35,000 tonnes of the 950,000 tonnes of microplastics that enter the world’s oceans each year, and these are only a slight proportion of the 12.2 million tonnes of plastic that get into the marine environment.

Nevertheless, a ban on microbeads in cosmetics would be a significant boost in the battle to prevent the plastic pollution of our seas. A study published earlier this year by researchers at Sweden’s Uppsala University concluded that perch larvae exposed to levels of microplastics consistent with those found in many coastal habitats prefer to eat plastics to their natural prey, stunting their growth and making them more prone to attacks by predators. Marine biologist Dr Oona Lönnstedt, noted: “If early life-history stages of other species are similarly affected by microplastics, and this translates to increased mortality rates, the effects on aquatic ecosystems could be profound.”

More information about research into how plastic pollution in our oceans is affecting food chains and the fish that ends up on our plates can be found in Resource’s feature article.

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