Pollution comes in many guises, and a number of them are detrimental to the health of ecosystems and individual species, including mankind. The industrial waste that enters our waterways can be toxic, particles emitted from vehicles poison the air, the use of pesticides contaminates our soil, and the fallout from our love affair with disposable plastic permeates every corner of the globe, including the remotest reaches of our oceans such as the polar seas and deep ocean trenches.
Marine plastics are gaining increasing attention, not least because they are such an obvious visual blight on our beaches and the sheer volume of plastic polluting our oceans has become impossible to ignore. But the aesthetic offensiveness of these indestructible eyesores should be the least of our concerns. Far more worrying is their detrimental, if largely invisible, long-term impact on our environment, our biodiversity and, potentially, human health.
FFI has been addressing the problem of marine plastic pollution as part of our broader remit for well over a decade, but in 2009 we began developing a programme that focused specifically on one of the most insidious threats to our oceans: microplastic pollution. As their name implies, microplastics are tiny (up to 5mm in size, with no lower limit), but their collective and cumulative impact may be disproportionately enormous.
Once these small plastic particles reach the sea, they are impossible to recover. In the ocean they become a magnet for water-borne toxins and are then mistaken for food and ingested by various forms of marine life. FFI was a pioneer in tackling this issue, which had been largely neglected by the conservation sector. We identified down-the-drain consumer products and poor handling of pre-production pellets as two of the most easily preventable direct sources of microplastic pollution. Taking an evidence-based and constructive approach, we have focused our efforts on these particular low-hanging fruit, working with producers, consumers, other NGOs and policy makers.
FFI has been at the forefront of efforts in the UK (and beyond) to halt the use of microplastic ingredients in cosmetics and toiletries such as face scrubs, toothpastes and shaving products. We created the Good Scrub Guide – subsequently promoted in partnership with the Marine Conservation Society – to help raise consumer awareness and give people an easy way to take positive action, and also collaborated on the development of the international Beat the Microbead App. Both these key sources of information encouraged consumers to vote with their wallets and send a strong message to high-street retailers and manufacturers that plastic doesn’t pay. The Good Scrub Guide provided us with a vital platform from which to engage with businesses (see below).
With regard to the spillage of pre-production plastic pellets (known as nurdles), flakes and powders into our rivers and seas, FFI undertook significant research to understand the problem and began to forge links with the plastics industry in an attempt to seek potential solutions. From 2012 we have collaborated closely with Fidra, a local environmental group in Scotland that launched The Great Nurdle Hunt, a citizen science project that helps raise awareness of the problem and pressurise companies into taking action to prevent spills.
FFI has engaged constructively with key producers such as PZ Cussons and Proctor & Gamble and retailers including Boots and M&S, and persuaded them that it makes good business sense to phase out the use or sale of microplastic ingredients in a range of products (not just face scrubs, but also toothpastes and bath products) and replace them with sustainable alternatives. We have also worked closely with the ethical beauty market (for example, Neals Yard Remedies) to promote natural alternatives to plastic. To date, we have secured public commitments from 33 companies to remove – or never to use – microplastics in their products.
With regard to nurdles, FFI is working with both national and international trade associations and coordinating a coalition of European NGOs to encourage the industry to adopt and improve good practice guidelines (Operation Clean Sweep) to avoid the loss of plastic pellets, flakes and powders into rivers and seas. Over time, we have begun to see increasing recognition of the need to change from both within the industry and from retailers that use plastic in their supply chain.
Although FFI secured voluntary commitments from over 30 companies to phase out or never use microplastic ingredients, we were aware of disparities in the extent of those commitments and that some companies were unlikely to change their behaviour voluntarily. At this point we recognised that there was a need for legislative change. We therefore entered into a coalition with the Environmental Investigation Agency, Greenpeace UK and the Marine Conservation Society in 2016 to campaign for a comprehensive ban on microbeads and other microplastic ingredients.
As consumer pressure and public awareness increased, the UK government ordered an inquiry into the environmental impacts of microplastics led by the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, at which FFI gave evidence, arguing that a ban on microplastic ingredients was needed and outlining our recommendations for making this effective. The committee accepted our evidence and recommended that the government institute a ban based specifically on the guidelines proposed by FFI.
In September 2016, the UK government formally announced its intention to introduce a ban. Following a consultation process to which FFI made a crucial technical contribution, further details of the exact nature of the ban were announced in July 2017 (Read our analysis here).
On the issue of nurdle pollution, FFI has prepared policy recommendations together with partners from the European Pellet Loss Coalition and presented these to the UK government and European Commission through policy briefings, letters, presentations and formal consultation responses.
Beyond the UK microbead ban consultation, FFI is also providing technical input to other formal consultations regarding, for example, the practicalities of implementing a Europe-wide ban.
In January 2017, FFI issued a guidance document designed to help businesses frame their voluntary commitments relating to the use of microplastic ingredients and to guide policymakers seeking to ban the sale and manufacture of products containing such ingredients. We are also continuing to assess the extent of microplastic use in other consumer products (including household cleaners and make-up).
We have also shared our experiences to help others work towards achieving bans around the world. This includes developing the Good Scrub Guide in Australia, and working with Surfrider and Tangaroa Blue Foundation to raise the profile of this issue Down Under.
At the start of 2016, FFI helped form the European Pellet Loss Coalition of 13 NGOs from seven countries in order to facilitate the exchange and collation of technical expertise on microplastic pollution from pellet loss, which resulted in a detailed briefing note with recommendations for policy makers.
FFI has also issued brief guidelines on tackling pellet loss in the supply chain for companies using these materials, together with suggested questions that companies can send to plastic suppliers to start conversations that encourage best practice in handling pellets.
FFI is also providing advice and support on the emerging issue of microfibre pollution through a collaborative, supply chain-focused project with the fashion industry. Synthetic clothing is increasingly recognised as a source of microplastic pollution, though fibres from many types of non-synthetic textile also persist in the environment. Researchers have found fibre pollution at the top of the world’s highest mountain ranges and its deepest ocean trenches, and fibres are ingested by a wide range of wildlife, including commercially important species destined for many peoples’ plates.
As specialists in the impacts of marine plastic pollution, FFI’s core focus is on prevention, as far upstream as possible. Increasingly, we see ‘alternative’ plastics – so-called plant-based, biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics – being put forward as a convenient solution to the problems of plastic pollution, including the sources of pollution, such as fibres, that we work to prevent. However, although research and development is ongoing in the search for materials that don’t carry the risk of environmental damage, FFI is concerned that a switch to ‘alternative plastics’ is giving rise to a range of unintended consequences and that consequently, these materials do not necessarily pose less harm to the environment than the conventional plastic they seek to replace. We have outlined these considerations in our 2022 briefing, Alternative plastic: Is it the answer to ending marine plastic pollution?
While a significant amount of work to date has focused on microplastic pollution, we don’t discount the problems caused by larger items of plastic such as packaging materials and abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear, and are working with our partners at coastal and marine sites around the world in order to identify locally appropriate solutions that reduce the source and impacts of ocean plastics in these places.
Plastic is accumulating in the world’s oceans at a staggering rate. An estimated eight million tons of plastic are swept into our seas and oceans every year, posing a severe risk to marine life.
Humans are inextricably linked to the environmental landscape within which our daily lives unfold. We depend completely on nature for a stable climate, clean air and water, and food.