Turning the tide on microplastics

Written by: Tom Freyberg | Published:
Artwork by Dan Bright

Will the upcoming UK ban on microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics be enough to solve what has become a huge global problem?

Microplastics and microbeads may well be micro in size, yet the commotion they have caused has been gargantuan. Defined as small pieces of plastic less than 5mm in diameter, reports on their impact to the marine environment have been alarming.

Government figures suggest that as much as eight million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans each year, with plastic ingested by 31 species of marine mammals and over 100 species of sea birds. The next time you tuck into a plate of six oysters, it’s worth noting that it could contain up to 50 plastic particles – certainly food for thought.

Following a consultation, the government recently confirmed that legislation will be introduced later this year to ban the use of plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic products.

Speaking at the WWF Living Planet Centre, environment minister Michael Gove said: “There is more we can do to protect our oceans, so we will explore new methods of reducing the amount of plastic – in particular plastic bottles – entering our seas, improve incentives for reducing waste and litter, and review the penalties available to deal with polluters, all part of a renewed strategy on waste and resources that looks ahead to opportunities outside the EU.”

Industry body CTPA (the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association) is keen to make sure that other cosmetic products are not branded with the microbead brush.

Plastics in the marine environment

“It is important that any ban is based on scientific evidence of risk to the marine environment. CTPA therefore welcomes the news that following the public consultation, the government remains committed to banning the use of plastic microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products only where there is clear and robust evidence of harm to the marine environment.”

It is important to distinguish between microplastics and microbeads. The former is the resulting small fragments left after the breakdown of large-scale, or macro, plastics. The latter are miniature beads used mainly in exfoliating personal-care products.

Despite the alarming environmental stats on microbeads, it is also important to put them into a wider context. Data from consultancy Eunomia’s report ‘Plastics in the Marine Environment’ showed that the contribution of cosmetics towards the total volume of all plastics entering the marine environment is 0.29%.

Speaking to RWW magazine, Dr Chris Flower, director-general of CTPA, a toxicologist and chartered biologist, says: “We look forward to hearing how government proposes to tackle those sources known to be major contributors to marine plastic pollution so that a genuine impact can be made on plastic pollution in our oceans for the future.”

Corporate responsibility

With many expecting the government ban, it raises the question of how the major cosmetics companies are dealing with the forthcoming change. RWW reached out to several of the major companies, with several already claiming to have already phased out the use of microbeads. French company L’Oréal says it no longer uses plastic microbeads as cleansing or exfoliating agents in its wash-off products.

A “reformulation has been completed”, it says, but “nevertheless a few products containing microbeads could still be present on the market”. The company intends to use alternative ingredients either alone or in association, such as minerals including clays or perlite, or the powder of fruit kernels.

Meanwhile, cosmetics giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) publicly committed to remove plastic microbeads from all exfoliating cleaning products by 2017. When questioned whether this is on track, a spokesperson told RWW: “I can confirm that P&G does not have any microbead-containing products in our portfolio of products shipping to the UK.”

Unilever claims it stopped using microbeads in 2014 and instead uses “alternative exfoliating ingredients, such as apricot kernels, cornmeal, ground pumice, silica and walnut shells”. Furthermore, Colgate-Palmolive also states 2014 as the year it stopped used microbeads. However, following this it says there has been a shift in focus from the public, with questions raised instead on the topic of polymer-based materials.

Interestingly, L’Oréal, P&G and Unilever were all part of an inquiry by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) into microplastics.

EAC chair Mary Creagh believes there needs to be more than just voluntary agreements. She says: “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.”

Beyond the sea

Earlier this year the European Commission launched a new study to quantify losses of microplastics from various sources and investigate options to reduce losses to the aquatic environment.

The study will address the sources, pathways and options for reducing the loss of microplastics emitted from, but not intentionally added into, products. This includes products such as textiles, vehicle tyres and artificial sports pitches.

Dr Chris Sherrington, head of environmental policy and economics at consultancy Eunomia and director of the project, tells RWW: “Microbeads are one source that can relatively easily be addressed, even though the weight isn’t much in terms of the actual tonnages going into the environment.

"While the government is talking about the ban, many leading companies are already phasing out microbeads. A ban will therefore create a level playing field. The ban supports the actions taken by those early adopters who have phased out beads in advance.”

However, he adds that the proposed microbead ban is “not broad enough in terms of the products it covers, focusing only on ‘rinse-off’ and excluding sunscreen, for example”.

On the EC study, other subject experts contributing to the project include Dr Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology at Plymouth University, independent consultant Dr Peter Kershaw, Dr Panayiota Apostolaki (from consultancy MRAG), professor Snejana Moncheva (from the Institute of Oceanology, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences), Outi Setala (from Finnish environment institute SYKE), Peter Sundt (from Norwegian consultancy Mepex) and Xenia Loizidou (from Cypriot consultancy Isotech).

“Accumulation of plastic debris in the ocean is a very substantial problem,” Plymouth University’s professor Thompson tells RWW. “It arises from many sources and no single action will solve the problem. However, anything we can do to reduce quantities of unnecessary contamination are a very good starting place and legislation on microbeads is entirely appropriate here.

"Microbeads in cosmetics are not the only source of contamination, but they are avoidable. There is ongoing work to consider other types of microplastic contamination and this will hopefully feed in to discussions on future legislation.

“Ultimately what is needed is much greater consideration of the end-of-life fate of plastic products – right from the start – at the design stage. This way we can avoid unnecessary environmental contamination.’’

As well as the microbead ban, the government believes its 5p carrier bag charge has had a positive contribution in reducing plastic waste. Following the introduction of the charge in October 2015, more than nine billion fewer plastic bags were used – an 83% reduction.

The Litter Strategy was also launched in April 2017, with the potential for a £150 fine to be introduced under the new plans. A national anti-littering campaign is also expected to follow in 2018.

Yet with primary microplastics coming from several sources, the question remains as to whether such measures will be enough to deal with such a widescale problem. For example, 20% of marine plastics are released at sea, the majority as a result of fishing activities from lost or discarded fishing gear. Other sources of microplastics include textiles, artificial sports pitches, pellet spills, road and building paints and tyre dust.

A final report from the Eunomia-led EC study is due out in November and will contain a prioritised list of measures. Progress may well have been made with the ban on microbeads, but this could just be the start of many actions needed to prevent plastics getting into the environment in the first place.

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