Microbeads

Clear, clean waters teeming with wildlife in a healthy habitat. Sadly that is not the reality where our precious marine habitat is concerned across vast tracts of the globe.

Our marine environment is now heavily polluted with plastics as a direct result of the actions of mankind. Plastics have become an inextricable part of our lives with quantities produced ever increasing.  For example in the UK alone production increased   38% between 2004 and 2014.

It’s not just the visible plastic bags, bottles and fishing detritus (such as discarded ropes and lines) that are polluting our oceans but the less obvious litter of tiny plastic particles, referred to as micro beads, less than 5mm in size, which are presenting a real danger to shell fish that are ingesting them and fish that are mistaking them for food. Recent studies are suggesting that this could represent a health threat to humans as a result of eating the fish. One study revealed that in 2009 micro-plastics were found in 36.5% of fish caught by trawlers in the English Channel.

Micro beads are mini balls of polyethylene and other plastics derived from petrochemicals including propylene and polystyrene.  They are used in a wide range of cosmetic products including face washes, exfoliators, show gels, whitening toothpaste as well as abrasive household cleaning products. Synthetic clothing also contains fibres of micro plastics.

The danger presents itself because once used and swilled off these products disappear down the drain and are so tiny they are not filtered out during our water cleaning processes and consequently end up in the ocean.

The statistics are stark. An average 150ml container of cosmetic product might contain 3 million plastic particles resulting in an average 100,000 particles being washed down the drain after just one shower. Larger plastic particles are regularly found on our beaches, for example a survey by Edge Hill University found 1.6 million plastic pellets on the beaches of Cumbrae in Scotland.

Estimating the toxicity of micro-plastics is complex and the full dangers to human health are not fully quantified yet but studies have revealed that these plastics are entering the food chain and the full impact of these materials in hard to measure. Small particles of plastics have been found in seabirds, fish and whales which swallow the materials but cannot digest them, leading to build-up in their digestive tracts. For the first time, however, scientists have demonstrated that fish exposed to such materials during their development show stunted growth and increased mortality rates, as well as changed behaviour that could endanger their survival by reducing rates of hatching and development to maturity.(Study published in Science – 3rd June 2016/ Micro-plastic’s Triple Threat)

WHAT TO DO?

Some fifth of micro beads are used in the cosmetics industry and this surely is one area that could be targeted relatively simply in order to begin to reduce the quantity of these plastics entering the marine habitat.

The United States of America and Canada have already legislated to prohibit the production or use of micro-plastics. The EU are making steps in this direction by banning micro beads from cosmetic products bearing the EU eco-label in 2015 but it needs to go further. The UK Government has indicated that it is willing to implement unilateral laws to ban micro beads. I am pressing for further action to resolve this deleterious situation encouraged by the positive effect government led action has had on reducing the quantity of plastic bags now being disposed of many of which have ended up in the sea.

It is encouraging that 25 UK companies have already either eradicated micro beads from their products or signalled their intention to do so. However there is still a long way to go.

TAKING PERSONAL ACTION

Ask about the products you use to find our whether they contain micro-beads. Consumer pressure is powerful in encouraging businesses to change their ingredients.

Lead by example and opt for cosmetic products that do not contain micro beads.

I have started a twitter campaign to question products and to highlight those which include microbeads but also to praise those companies, for example Spezia, a Cornish based company that use only natural ingredients in their exfoliators. Do join in my search to name, shame, and praise! 

Greenpeace launched a campaign against microbeads earlier this year (to read all about it click HERE) and the Environmental Audit Select Committee, of which I am a member is currently holding an inquiry into the Environmental Impact of Micro-Plastics.

On May 26th I called on the Deputy Leader of the House to hold a debate on micro beads and the importance of this serious issue was acknowledged.

UPDATE

Having fought a yearlong campaign to highlight the damaging effect of micro plastics on our marine environment I am delighted that Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom has listened to my call for a ban on these damaging, miniscule micro beads in cosmetics and has announced plans to ban the sale and manufacture of cosmetics and personal care products containing them.

Hundreds of thousands of these tiny plastic beads wash down the drain every time we take a shower, wash our hair, or clean our teeth using a product containing them.  Less than 5 mm in size these plastic micro beads cannot be filtered out by water companies and ultimately end up in the ocean where they are ingested by fish and shellfish. Research indicates that this may have a deleterious effect on their reproduction not to mention the potential knock on impact on humans ingesting fish and shellfish.  Eat 6 oysters, for example and you have ingested 50 micro beads.

As well as running a social media campaign encouraging consumers to seek out micro bead free alternatives and calling for a ban on micro plastics I also took part in the Environmental Audit Select Committee inquiry into the impact of micro beads which has recently published its conclusion calling for a ban. It was this pressure, together with that of many environmental organisations and other likeminded individuals that convinced the Secretary of State to take action and I welcome it.

A consultation will launched later this year to establish how and when a ban could be introduced, aiming to change legislation next year.  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 else might be done in future to tackle other plastics, for example microfibers in clothing which also enter the marine environment and are not filtered out by washing machines or water companies.

Whilst 25 UK cosmetics and toiletries companies, such as Unilever and Waitrose are adopting a voluntary phase out a legislative ban will tackle inconsistency and stop new products containing micro plastics from being sold in the UK.

Manufacturers are exploring natural alternatives, including nut shells, salt and sugar, which have the same exfoliating properties but do not pose a threat to the environment.

The ban follows the successful introduction of the 5p plastic carrier bag charge which has led to six billion fewer bags issued this year and I am delighted that it is a really positive step towards tackling plastic in our oceans.

More in the News