Stemming the tide of microplastic pollution

7th July 2016

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Hollie-Louise Allen

The Environmental Audit Committee is putting pressure on firms using microbeads.

Clear, clean waters teeming with wildlife in a healthy habitat. Sadly that is not the reality across vast tracts of the globe. Much of it is now heavily polluted with plastics as a direct result of human actions and our ever-increasing dependency on the material. Production of plastics increased in the UK by 38% between 2004 and 2014, which illustrates the point.

It is not just the visible plastic bags, bottles and fishing detritus that are polluting our oceans but the less obvious litter of tiny plastic particles, referred to as microbeads. These are less than 5 mm in size and present a significant danger to the fish that mistake them for food. One study revealed that in 2009 micro-plastics were found in 36.5% of fish caught by trawlers in the English Channel.

Microbeads are used in a wide range of cosmetics, household cleaning products and synthetic clothing. They present a hazard because, once used and swilled off, microbeads disappear down the drain and are so tiny they are not filtered out during the water cleaning processes, ultimately ending up in the seas. The statistics are stark. An average 150 ml container of cosmetic product might contain three million plastic particles resulting in around 100,000 particles being washed down the drain after just one shower.

So what to do about this worrying problem? With one-fifth of microbeads used in the cosmetics industry I suggest this may be a good place to begin looking into a ban. Thanks to consumer pressure and campaigns by groups such as Greenpeace, the industry is already beginning to take note and look into different ingredients. I strongly encourage people to question whether microbeads are in the products they use. The more pressure consumers can put on manufacturers to change the more likely they are to react. I am using Twitter to this effect. It is a useful vehicle for naming and shaming but also for praising those companies not using microbeads.

The environmental audit committee, of which I am a member, is conducting an inquiry into the effects of micro plastics. I’ve already spoken to Defra ministers about the possibility of introducing some kind of ban, perhaps just on cosmetics to start with, and I sense there is an appetite for this.

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