UK should ban microbeads, says official Parliamentary Committee

Cosmetics companies should be banned from using plastic microbeads in bathroom products, according to a new report published by the UK Environmental Audit Committee today.

Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP said, “Trillions of tiny pieces of plastic are accumulating in the world’s oceans, lakes and estuaries, harming marine life and entering the food chain. The microbeads in scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes are an avoidable part of this plastic pollution problem. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean.

“Cosmetic companies’ voluntary approach to phasing out plastic microbeads simply won’t wash. We need a full legal ban, preferably at an international level as pollution does not respect borders. If this isn’t possible after our vote to leave the EU, then the Government should introduce a national ban. The best way to reduce this pollution is to prevent plastic being flushed into the sea in the first place.”

The announcement follows a series of hearings, during which the committee (a cross-party group of Members of Parliament) listened to evidence on the environmental impacts of microplastic pollution and the voluntary measures taken by cosmetics manufacturers to phase out microplastic ingredients from their products.

Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) Marine Plastics Programme Manager, Daniel Steadman, attended the second hearing, and argued that the voluntary steps taken by industry to date have failed to tackle the problem effectively due to inconsistencies in the standard of commitments. As a result, FFI believes that strong regulation is needed to stop this unnecessary source of pollution.

Among other recommendations set out in its report, Environmental impact of microplastics, the Environmental Audit Committee states: “We recommend that the Government introduce a legislative ban on the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and other toiletries. The legislation should follow the principles set out by Fauna & Flora International around universality and consistency.”

Responding to the report, Steadman said, “This is a major step forward in the battle to stem the tide of microplastics into our oceans. We now need to keep up the pressure on the UK Government to follow the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations and create rigorous legislation that will put a stop to this pollution problem once and for all. In doing so, it would be a world leader on this issue.”

The UK Environmental Audit Committee has recommended a ban of microbeads in the UK. Credit: Dan Steadman/FFI.

The UK Environmental Audit Committee has recommended a ban of microbeads in the UK. Credit: Dan Steadman/FFI.

In a joint statement, the Environmental Investigation Agency, Fauna & Flora International, Greenpeace UK, and the Marine Conservation Society, said:

An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic goes into our seas every year – and microbeads in household products including face scrubs, toothpastes and detergents are a part of this problem.

There was already huge public support for a ban on microbeads – with over 300,000 people backing our campaign – and now there’s political support which crosses party boundaries.

As a coalition of organisations sounding the alarm about the harm that microbeads can cause to marine life and our oceans, and even potentially to human health, we think it’s great that the Environmental Audit Committee has heard that loud and clear.

With companies dragging their feet on this issue, it’s now time for Theresa May’s Government to take comprehensive action on this crucial issue by banning any microplastics in household products which could end up going down the drain and into our seas.

Crucially, any legislation must be fully comprehensive to avoid the loopholes we have seen in company commitments. By removing these loopholes, the UK could show genuine environmental leadership and go beyond the US microbeads ban, which has various limitations around which types of ingredient and product it applies to.

Specifically, we ask the Government to follow the below guidelines set out by our coalition (as recommended in today’s Environmental Audit Committee report):

  • Any definition of ‘microbeads’ must include all solid microplastics used for any purpose (not just for exfoliation). There should be no lower size limit included in the definition.
  • The legislation should cover all products that are commonly washed down the drain. This includes a wide range of cosmetic and personal care products as well as many household cleaners and other product categories.
  • Legislation should not allow so-called ‘biodegradable’ plastics to be used as alternatives as these materials do not degrade in the marine environment and therefore represent a false solution to the problem.
  • There should be a clear timeline for phasing out these ingredients, and a date after which products containing microplastics must not be sold. Ideally this should be within two years of the ban.

For more information, read the official announcement by the Environmental Audit Committee. The full report is also available online along with a summary and a copy of the conclusions and recommendations.

Don’t want to wait for a ban to go microplastic-free? Take a look at FFI’s Good Scrub Guide to find products that are free from these ingredients.