High street brands pledge to phase out plastic microbeads

In a striking example of the power of consumer pressure, a large number of leading UK retailers have pledged to phase out plastic microbeads from own-brand cosmetic and beauty products.

The commitments, which have today been made publicly available (PDF), show where leading high street and online retailers stand on the issue of microplastic pollution, which is believed to be a major threat to marine wildlife.

Polyethylene. Credit: FFI.

Plastics, such as polyethylene, are prevalent in many cosmetic products. Credit: Roger Ingle/FFI.

This is the first comprehensive and accurate list of all the commitments made by UK manufacturers and retailers, and shows that industry is now taking the matter seriously.

“Three years ago, hardly anyone in the UK knew about plastic microbeads in cosmetics or the impact they have on marine wildlife, but today the situation is very different,” said Tanya Cox, Projects Manager for Marine Plastics at Fauna & Flora International.

“Thanks to dedicated campaigning by organisations like Fauna & Flora International and the Marine Conservation Society, and efforts by the press to raise public awareness, this issue is now very much in the public consciousness with thousands of people actively putting pressure on their favourite brands to phase out microbeads.”

“It’s really fantastic to see the UK industry responding in such a positive way to this feedback from their customers, with retailers and manufacturers alike committing publicly to phase out these unsustainable ingredients.”

“However, while it’s encouraging that brands are making these statements voluntarily, it is clear that legislation is still needed to level the playing field and ensure that brands really do meet their commitments – now and into the future,” she added.

What are microbeads, and why should we care?

Used as exfoliants in a range of beauty and cosmetic products (from facial scrubs to toothpastes and even deodorants), microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic less than a millimetre in diameter. Their small size means that they cannot be filtered out during wastewater treatment, so once they are washed down the drain they almost invariably end up in our rivers, lakes and seas.

Mounting evidence suggests that microplastics can harm marine wildlife as they become embedded in ecosystems and are eaten by a range of sea life, from shellfish to seabirds.

Not only can this cause health problems for these animals directly, it may also have knock-on effects for the entire food web, as plastics are known to adsorb toxic, bioaccumulating chemicals from the surrounding marine environment, which then become more and more concentrated and harmful as they pass up the food chain.

There are a number of natural exfoliants (such as nut kernels) that work just as well as plastic microbeads, and their use has been pioneered by brands who have always opted for these more sustainable ingredients.

In addition to the public commitments published today (PDF), concerned shoppers can also check out the Good Scrub Guide to find out whether their favourite face scrub is plastic free. For those on the go, there is also a mobile app called Beat the Microbead, which allows customers to scan a product’s barcode and find out whether it contains microplastic.

The successes seen to date show just how effective ‘voting with your wallet’ can be, especially when amplified by collaborations such as the Marine Litter Action Network, which built on the early successes of the Good Scrub Guide by bringing together key players from different sectors to support the cause.

Fauna & Flora International’s work with plastic microbeads is supported by: Fidra, Arcadia, The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, and The Alerce Trust.

To find out more, read the media release (PDF).