The Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) is seeking views on proposals to stop the manufacture and sale of microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic in personal beauty products, that end up in the oceans and are swallowed by marine life.

The two-month consultation also looks at which steps can be taken to prevent other sources of plastic from entering the marine environment.

Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom said: “The UK has always been a leader in environmental protection and we take our responsibility to marine life – not only in our own seas, but around the world – very seriously. So whether you’re shopping for a loved one, or picking up a bargain in the sales, I urge shoppers to check any rinse-off cosmetics they are buying are microbead free.”

Exploiting loopholes

It is estimated that between 80,000 and 219,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the marine environment across Europe per year. Some microbeads are visible to the naked eye, but others are as tiny as one micrometre. Conservationists have warned that they can affect fish growth and persist in the guts of mussels and fish that mistake them for food.

Almost all of Britain’s major retailers have pledged to phase out harmful microbeads from their own-brand cosmetic and beauty products. However, critics have claimed some companies were exploiting loopholes or dragging their feet on a phase-out.

Leadsom, whose department initially pledged to phase-out microbeads in September after demands for a sector-wide ban from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), said it was “encouraging” that many retailers and manufacturers are already taking action. Today’s announcement, Leadsom insists, will ensure that microbeads will have “no place” in future personal care products.

‘World leader’

Products that don’t contain microbeads but have the same exfoliating properties are “readily available”, according to Defra, with many manufacturers using natural alternatives like nut shells, salt and sugar in their products.

British retailer Neal’s Yard Remedies sustainability manager Dominic Winter said: “We have never used microplastics in any of our products, which means shoppers can feel good that the products they buy are not harming our oceans. There are a range of highly effective natural, sustainable options when purchasing personal care products, with ingredients that have a hugely reduced impact on the environment.

“Government is committed to protecting seas, oceans and marine life around the world from pollution. As well as the successful introduction of the 5p plastic bag charge – which has nearly cut the number of bags found on beaches by half – there is also ongoing work to create a ‘bluebelt’ of marine conservation areas around the UK.”

His views were echoed by Dr Laura Foster, head of pollution at the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), who said: “It’s great the Government announced its intention to ban microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. This consultation gives an opportunity to show the UK can be a world leader in improving the health of our oceans and reducing microplastic pollution.”

George Ogleby

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