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Microbead ban could carve a path to tackle wider plastics pollution

3 min read

Microbead ban is a good first step toward Government's commitment to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, says Rebecca Pow MP.


Asking the Speaker whether he had taken a shower last week in PMQ’s may have introduced a somewhat comic element to proceedings in the Chamber, but there was good reason behind my question. An average 150ml container of cosmetic product might contain 3 million plastic particles or micro beads, resulting in an average 100,000 particles being washed down the drain with just one shower. Many shampoos, exfoliators, face washes, sun tan lotions, and toothpastes also contain microbeads. 

During the course of the Environmental Audit Select Committee inquiry (on which I sat) into the environmental impact of micro beads it became apparent that few water companies have the means to filter out these miniscule plastic beads (less than 5mm) and so they ultimately end up in the ocean. Evidence suggests that this flood of plastic is affecting marine habitats, presenting a real danger to fish and shell fish when mistaken for food and ingested.

Micro beads are derived from petro chemicals including propylene and polystyrene and scientists have demonstrated that exposure to such materials can lead to signs of stunted growth in fish, changes in behaviour and increased mortality rates. One 2009 study revealed microplastics were found in 36.5% of fish caught by trawlers in the English Channel.  Some evidence suggests microplastics are entering the human food chain, 50 microbeads, for example could be contained in 6 oysters. There’s no conclusive evidence on the risks posed to humans and the Chief Medical officer will be reviewing this.

I have run my own personal campaign calling for this unnecessary source of pollution to be eliminated alongside a number of organisations including the Marine Conservation Society and I was delighted when government launched its consultation on a proposed ban in cosmetics and personal care products also looking at other sources of microplastics in the marine environment. The consultation has just closed and I was delighted that in her response to me last week the Prime Minister committed to introducing a ban on microplastics in cosmetics and personal care products by October 1st this year.

Many companies, including Tesco, Waitrose, and M&S have voluntarily phased out microbeads in their own brand cosmetic and personal care products and switched to natural or synthetic alternatives. (Some companies also have never used them.) However, rather than relying on the voluntary approach a ban would speed up progress and create a level playing field for manufacturers.

Whilst microbeads in cosmetic and care companies contribute only up to 4% of the total found in the marine environment and there are many other sources (car tyre wear, synthetic clothing, cleaning products) getting rid of microplastics in the cosmetics sector presents a manageable prospect.  I am optimistic it will pave the way for dealing with much wider plastic pollution (including the 8 billion plastic water bottles thrown away each year, many breaking down into microbeads in the sea.) A bold step on microbeads will chime well with this government’s laudable aim to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. Further opportunities arise in the forthcoming government Litter Strategy and Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan. I shall be exploring the microbeads issue in my Westminster Hall debate later today.

Rebecca Pow is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Taunton Deane

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