A UK-wide ban on the manufacture of cosmetics and personal care products containing tiny pieces of plastic known as “microbeads” has come into force this week, in a move aimed at protecting ocean wildlife from their harmful effects.
From 9 January manufacturers, including industry giants like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, will no longer be able to add them to products like face scrubs, toothpastes and shower gels, meaning that there will be one less source of plastic pollution being washed down the drains and out into waterways and sea.
What are microbeads?
Microbeads are those teeny-tiny spheroid particles added to rinse-off toiletries to give them their exfoliating properties. Made of polyethylene plastic, they form part of a larger class of microplastics – pieces of plastic less than five millimeters in length, that come from a variety of sources, including chewing gum, industrial cleaning products, synthetic clothing fibers, and tires. So-called ‘secondary’ microplastics are created as larger items plastic detritus weather and degrade. The size of microplastics – and microbeads in particular – means that they often slip through filtration systems in waste-water treatment plants and end up in the ocean. Like other forms of plastic pollution, they do not decompose over time and can be toxic to marine organisms and harmful to human health.
According to a 2016 report published by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, between 16 and 86 tonnes of microbeads from facial exfoliants alone are washed down UK drains every year, with the Department of the Environment claiming that between 0.01% and 4.1% of marine microplastic pollution comes from cosmetic product sources. Particles have been found in a large variety of marine organisms, including species we consume as seafood. More than a quarter of fish in markets in Indonesia and California have been found to contain plastic particles, and more than a third of fish in the English Channel are believed to be contaminated by them.
The UK government first pledged to ban plastic microbeads in September 2016, following the signing of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 by Barack Obama which banned plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. Since then other countries have taken similar steps to outlawing them in products. In 2016, Health Canada initiated a movement to ban plastic microbeads by mid-2018, and later that year, the federal government recognized the tiny plastic additives as a toxic substance. Canada’s official ban on products containing plastic microbeads took effect as of January 1, 2018. A ban by New Zealand will also become effective this year.
A small part of a bigger problem
The problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans has risen in profile in recent years thanks in part due to the publishing of data revealing both the sheer staggering amount (an estimated five trillion pieces of plastic collectively weighing nearly 269,000 tonnes) and also the extent to which even remote regions of the planet are being affected by it. Popular wildlife documentaries, such as the recently aired BBC Blue Planet II have also done much to bring the issue to wider public attention and to highlight the impact that our throwaway, convenience culture is having.
Microbeads are a small but significant part of the problem, and while a ban on their manufacture and inclusion is certainly a positive step, there are those that insist that the UK ban does not go far enough. A backlash from the cosmetics industry on the grounds of difficulty and cost has resulted in “leave-on” products, such as make-up and sunscreen, being excluded.
Other land-based sources of microplastics such as textiles (synthetic fibres), terrestrial transport (dust from tyres), and plastic producers and fabricators (plastic resin pellets used in plastics manufacture) will also all require similar action from government, industry and consumers if their direct ecological, social and economic impacts are to be avoided.
The UK ban on the manufacture of products containing microbeads will be followed by a ban on the sale of such products in July.