Minister backs EU-level microbead ban

7th July 2016

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Alison Topping

The government has strengthened its view on use of microbeads in cosmetics and toiletries and now supports a ban rather than a voluntary phase-out, according to environment minister George Eustice.

Speaking at an evidence session held by the parliamentary environmental audit committee (EAC) as part of its inquiry into microbeads, Eustice said plans to introduce a ban in the US in July 2017 had ‘changed the nature of the debate’. He revealed that the government had been talking to other EU member states to gain support for a bloc-wide ban.

Working alone, the UK could implement a ban on manufacturing of products containing microbeads, but not the sale of products imported with microbeads, since trade is controlled at EU level, Eustace explained. The circular economy package would be the most appropriate mechanism through which to implement the ban, he added.

If the EU fails to implement a ban, Eustice said the UK government would consider a unilateral action, although he admitted that did not know how many personal care products manufactured in the UK contained microbeads.

Many large cosmetic companies have already volunteered to phase out microbeads from their products by 2020. John Chave, director general of trade body Cosmetics Europe, said its larger corporate members might be able to phase them out earlier, but that many small and medium-sized businesses would find it difficult to reformulate their products so quickly.

However, preliminary results from a survey of the body’s members revealed they had already phased out around 75% of microbeads by volume. There was no incentive to manufacture the same product in different ways to different global markets so the cosmetics sector expects the phase out to be global, Chave said.

L’Oréal, P&C, Unilever, Reckitt Benckiser and Johnson & Johnson had initially refused to appear before the committee. However, L’Oréal, P&C and Unilever were due to give evidence as the environmentalist went to press.

There has been increasing public pressure over the issue of microbeads in toiletries, with a petition coordinated by NGOs attracting 300,000 signatures. Up to 4.1% of marine microplastic pollution comes from cosmetics, which equates to 2,400–8,600 tonnes of plastic entering seas each year. Other sources are industrial scrubbers and larger pieces of plastic broken down over time, according to research by the House of Commons.

Eustice said that the government was not against expanding the ban to other products, such as washing powder, but that a ban on use in cosmetics was a good starting point as it was relatively easy.


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