Environment

Managing marine microplastics: The proposed UK ban on microbeads

Microbeads are a type of microplastic - plastic particles which are just a few millimetres in size. Given their abrasive properties they are used as exfoliants in cosmetics and household products such as toothpastes, shower gels, body scrubs, shaving products and washing detergents. Once microbeads are washed down the drain, they find their way into ecosystems. The tiny beads are difficult to completely filter out of the water, so some remain in the marine environment where they accumulate and contribute to the growing problem of marine pollution. Recent research suggests microbeads also end up in sludge from waste water treatment plants used as fertiliser in agriculture, which transfers them into the soil.

View this post in Welsh | Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg

What are microbeads and why ban them?

Image of the sun shining over Lindsway Bay, Wales.Microbeads are a type of microplastic – plastic particles which are just a few millimetres in size. Given their abrasive properties they are used as exfoliants in cosmetics and household products such as toothpastes, shower gels, body scrubs, shaving products and washing detergents.

Once microbeads are washed down the drain, they find their way into ecosystems. The tiny beads are difficult to completely filter out of the water, so some remain in the marine environment where they accumulate and contribute to the growing problem of marine pollution. Recent research suggests microbeads also end up in sludge from waste water treatment plants used as fertiliser in agriculture, which transfers them into the soil.

What is the scale of the problem?

Marine pollution is recognised as a global issue. One estimate suggests that 12.2 million of tonnes of plastic enters the marine environment each year. Of this, around 0.95 million tonnes is microplastics.

The extent and effects of microplastic pollution are not fully understood. However, a growing body of research suggests that it has the potential to affect marine ecosystems in a number of way (PDF 1896KB). The particles can contribute to the dispersal of toxic chemicals and pathogens, and, when ingested, may have harmful effects on wildlife.

Microbeads contribute just a small proportion of microplastic pollution – between 0.01 and 4% of the total quantity. Other sources include the degradation of plastic products, paints, synthetic textiles and fragmentation of marine litter. While a microbead ban alone will not solve the problem, they have nonetheless been highlighted as a preventable source on which action can be taken.

A review by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee concluded that, while there is still uncertainty in the research, there is “scope for significant harm to the marine environment”. In August 2016 it recommended a worldwide ban on microbeads.

Is anything being done already?

Microbeads have come under the spotlight in recent years thanks to public awareness campaigns, such as Beat the Microbead and the work of environmental NGOs such as the Marine Conservation Society and Greenpeace.

In 2015, the USA brought in a ban on rinse-off cosmetics and over-the-counter drugs containing microbeads. Governments in Canada, Italy and France have announced their own plans for similar bans. Other countries considering a ban include Ireland, South Korea, Taiwan and China.

The EU carried out a consultation on plastic waste in 2013. The following year, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria issued a joint statement (PDF 197KB) which called on the EU to take regulatory measures to control microbeads. However, at present, the EU has not announced any plans for an EU-wide ban.

While there is not currently a ban in place in the UK, industry has taken voluntary steps to reduce microbead use. In 2014, a number of companies, including Tesco, Procter & Gamble, Superdrug, Sainsbury’s and Unilever pledged to phase them out. In 2015, Cosmetics Europe recommended that its members should discontinue the use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics by 2020. A 2016 survey of members of the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA), found that the number of cosmetic products containing microbeads had halved since 2015. All of the surveyed companies had plans to phase out microbeads by 2018.

However, removing the microbeads from products presents challenges for manufacturers, as suitable alternatives must be found and implemented, which requires investment, resources and time.

What is being proposed?

Given the transboundary nature of the issue, the UK government is proposing a UK-wide ban on the manufacture and sale of all rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products which contain microbeads.

It will affect those products containing solid microplastic ingredients measuring less than 5mm in every dimension. The legislation is to be developed collaboratively by the UK Government and the devolved administrations.

The UK Government hopes that the action will not only reduce the quantity of microbeads entering the environment, but also create a level playing field for industry, tackle inconsistency within the market and provide confidence for consumers.

Have your say on the microbeads ban

Defra’s Marine Division on behalf of the UK Government and the devolved administrations is leading a UK-wide consultation. As well as comments on the proposed ban, the consultation is also seeking evidence on the impacts of microbeads in other products, in order to inform potential future UK actions.

Full details on the consultation can be found on the Welsh Government website here: Proposals to ban the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

The deadline for responses is 28 February 2017.

Have your say on Marine Protected Areas in Wales

The Assembly’s Committee on Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs is welcoming contributions to an inquiry into the management of marine protected areas in Wales. More details on how to get involved can be found here: Inquiry into the management of marine protected areas in Wales.


Article by Jeni Spragg, National Assembly for Wales Research Service.