COMMONS

MPs urge Government to ban microbeads in cosmetics

24 August 2016

Cosmetic companies should be banned from using plastic microbeads in bathroom products - like exfoliating scrubs, toothpaste and shaving gel - because of the marine pollution they are causing, the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee has demanded.

Report findings

Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP:

"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."

Microplastic pollution comes from the fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic waste, small synthetic fibres from clothing and the microbeads used in cosmetics and other products. It is estimated that as much as 86 tonnes of microplastics is released into the environment every year in the UK from facial exfoliants alone.

National ban

Most large cosmetics companies have made voluntary commitments to phase out microbeads by 2020. However, the Committee found that a legislative ban would have advantages for consumers and the industry in terms of consistency, universality and confidence. The Committee would like to see a national ban on microbeads by the end of 2017.

Labelling

The industry is failing to label products containing microbeads clearly, the report points out. If the Government fails to introduce a ban, the Committee is calling on it to introduce a clear labelling scheme for microbeads during the transitional period of a voluntary phase out to provide transparency for customers.

Chair's comment:

"Most people would be aghast to learn that their beauty products are causing this ugly pollution. Cosmetic companies need to come clean and label their products containing plastics clearly."

Impact on human health and the environment

Microplastic pollution is potentially more environmentally damaging than larger pieces of plastic because it is more likely to be eaten by wildlife and microplastics have a greater surface area with which to transfer chemicals to and from the marine environment. Relatively little research has been done so far either on potential impacts to marine life, human health or the marine economy.

Chair's comment 

"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."

Microbeads are a significant and avoidable part of the problem. However, the wider issue of microplastic pollution cannot be set aside once microbeads have been dealt with. Between 80,000 & 219,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the marine environment across Europe per year. Opportunities to capture microplastics through enhanced washing machine filtration systems and improved waste and water sewage treatment processes must also be explored.

Marine plastic debris

Persistent marine plastic debris are rapidly accumulating in the world's oceans. Most of the world's ocean plastics by weight are large pieces of debris (e.g. fishing equipment, bottles and plastic bags). However, the dominant type of debris by quantity is microplastics.

It is estimated that 15-51 trillion microplastic particles have accumulated in the ocean. Microplastics have been reported at the sea surface and on shorelines worldwide. They are also present in remote locations including deep sea sediments and in arctic sea ice. 

Further information

Image: MPCA-Flickr

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