Members of the UK’s environmental audit committee have begun a call to have cosmetics companies banned from using microplastics, specifically microbeads, within the next year and a half. The push comes after the committee released a report detailing that, among other things, the UK’s use of facial exfoliants alone release 86 tonnes (94.8 tons) of microplastics into the environment each year.
In Brief: Microplastics and Microbeads
Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic waste that are the largest contributor to ocean debris. A subcategory of microplastics are microbeads, tiny (max width of 1.25 millimeters) plastic particles used in a variety of cosmetic products.
Microbeads are most commonly used in exfoliants, since these products use the small, hard particles to rub away dead skin and debris. Microbeads are not more effective at this task than natural options, but they are the cheapest to use. Since the 1990’s, microbeads have proliferated throughout various cosmetic and bathroom products including shampoos and toothpastes. The UK report noted that a single shower could result in 100,000 microbeads entering the ocean.
Since they are so small, microbeads can be eaten by sea life and even if the fish or plankton isn’t harmed, this can lead to the microbeads entering the food chain and possibly wind up on a human’s dinner plate. Although the microbeads contain various chemicals and pollutants, the health effects of eating food containing them have not been explored yet. For now, microbeads remain and easily-targeted way to help address the problem of microplastic pollution.
Many cosmetics companies are aware of the problems posed by microbeads, as are other governments. In the United States, legislation has been passed that requires microbeads to be phased out starting in 2017. In the UK, companies have pledged to phase out microbeads by 2020. The committee, however, found that a formal, national ban on microbeads would have a better result since it would promote more consistency and universality among products. The report also recommended a clear labeling scheme for microbead-containing products during the transition period, since not all cosmetics disclose their microbead use.
While a ban will not solve the microplastics problem, it would be an easy step in that direction. Cosmetics are neither essential products nor are microbeads required for them to be effective. Any consumers who wish to avoid using products containing microbeads should look at the ingredients list for either “polyethylene” or “polypropylene”—the two types of plastic most often used in microbeads.
“MPs urge Government to ban microbeads in cosmetics,” Parliament web site, August 24, 2016; http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmental-audit-committee/news-parliament-2015/microplastics-report-published-16-17/, last accessed August 24, 2016.