The UK is set to follow the US’ lead by banning the use of microbeads in cosmetics and cleaning products by 2017, the government recently announced.
The use of the little plastic beads has been controversial within recent years, as environmentalists have warned that they are entering the ocean in huge quantities, where they subsequently end up becoming part of the food chain when fish and other sea animals ingest them.
Last month the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee revealed that up to 100,000 plastic particles can enter the ocean from just one shower, and as a result the committee called on the UK government to take action.
The beads are often used in products such as exfoliating face and body scrubs, toothpaste and cleaning products, though it is not always clearly stated on the label. Instead, consumers should look out for words like polyethylene, polypropylene and polymethylmethacrylate in the ingredients list. You can also search the database on the website Beat the Microbead to learn which products contain them.
Companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Proctor and Gamble have promised to stop using the tiny plastic balls by the end of next year, and other companies have put forward their plans to phase out their use by 2020.
Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom recently announced that the government will start planning the ban later this year. She 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.”
She also said it was the “next step in tackling microplastics in our seas”, after the successful bid to decrease the number of plastic bags being used by introducing the 5p charge last October.
Marine biologist, Professor Richard Thompson from Plymouth University said the ban was fantastic news. “Over 680 tonnes of mircrobeads are used in the UK alone every year. That’s substantially more than all of the litter we pick up on our beaches in voluntary beach cleans each year, so it’s not a trivial quantity.
“The sooner we can make progress with avoidable, unnecessary emissions, because it’s not clear to me at all why we need to cleanse ourselves by rubbing our skin with millions of small, plastic particles. What’s the societal benefit there?”
It has been found that around 280 species of marine animals ingest the beads. For example, a recent report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee stated that a plate of six oysters could contain around 50 small pieces of plastic.
Louise Edge, Greenpeace’s UK senior oceans campaigner, said that: “It’s a credit to Theresa May’s government that they’ve listened to concerns from the public, scientists and MPs, and taken a first step towards banning microbeads.
“Marine life doesn’t distinguish between plastic from a face wash and plastic from a washing detergent, so the ban should be extended to microplastics in any product that could be flushed down the drain.
“If Theresa May wants to show real leadership on this issue, that’s the kind of ban she should back.”