MPs attack loopholes in cosmetic industry’s microbead phase out

Voluntary action by the cosmetics industry to phase out the use of microbeads in Europe came under strong attack from MPs on Wednesday, who criticised loopholes in the pledges and slammed the lack of labelling on products containing the plastic particles.

Tiny plastic beads are widely used in toiletries and cosmetics but thousands of tonnes of them wash into the sea every year, where they harm wildlife and can ultimately be eaten by people. The US has banned microbeads and a petition signed by over 300,000 people asking for a ban in the UK was delivered to David Cameron on Wednesday.

However, giving evidence to parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, John Chave, director general of trade body Cosmetics Europe, said: “We think voluntary action is a good way to address this problem. We think we are a responsible industry and we want to do the right thing.”

Zac Goldsmith MP disagreed: “I am trying to understand why, as a trade body, would you be so strongly opposed to a ban and I can’t think of any reason other than the fact that the industry is perhaps not as committed as you imply.”

Another MP, Peter Heaton-Jones, said the lack of labelling of products was a serious problem: “The consumer has no way of knowing whether that box or tube or bottle of stuff that he or she is about to buy contains microbeads or not.” Chris Flower, director general of the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, which represents the UK industry, said: “The practical side of [labelling] may be extremely difficult to implement.”

Loopholes in the voluntary pledges made by the cosmetics manufacturers were also raised by MPs, based on evidence submitted by campaigners. These include only committing to stop using plastics beads in “exfoliating” products, despite solid plastics being used in items including moisturisers, make-up, lip balms and shaving foams.

Many pledges are also unclear about the minimum size of microbeads being excluded, which means small particles used in products like sunscreens and face powders would continue to be used.

Some commitments allow the use of “biodegradable” plastic microbeads, despite such materials being labelled as a false solution to the problem by the chief scientist at the UN Environment Programme, because they do not break down in cool, dark ocean waters. Some of the company pledges also do not commit to phasing out the beads in all countries and in future products.

Flower said the concept of biodegradability was “evolving”. But he said Cosmetics Europe’s voluntary approach, which has a 2020 deadline, should be given time to work. “If, on inspection, it is shows we can’t do that job properly, then we would have no grounds for opposing a legislative ban.” Earlier on Wednesday it was revealed that major manufacturers had refused invitations to give evidence in person to the EAC.

Daniel Steadman, from Fauna & Flora International, which produces The Good Scrub Guide, said the loopholes were unacceptable: “When the public say they do not want microbeads, they do not expect a technical discussion about what microbeads are, they want products that don’t cause environmental pollution after they use them. A robust, loophole-free legislative ban is an unequivocal way to achieve this, getting rid of the problems with current commitments and making clear the public gets what the public wants.” In April, a poll indicated that two-thirds of the British public backed a microbead ban.

On the absence of microbead labelling on products, Steadman said: “People can’t track the activities of a remote trade association or trawl 1000s of companies websites for commitments.”

The tiny beads are too small to be filtered effectively by sewage treatment plants and flow into the oceans. Plastic pollution in the oceans is a huge problem: 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating in the world’s seas. Microbeads, also used in some toothpastes, are a small but significant part of this which campaigners argue is the easiest to prevent.

Microbeads are eaten by marine life, which mistake them for food particles, and have been shown to kill fish before they reach reproductive age. The tiny beads can also attract toxins from seawater, which are then passed up the food chain. The beads are thought to be eaten by people consuming seafood and possibly breathed in too. Safe alternatives are already available, including ground nutshells and salt.

The US ban was passed at the end of 2015, with Canada set to follow suit and several EU nations – but not the UK – calling for a legal ban. UK environment ministers argued in March in favour of a voluntary phase out of microbeads by companies. But on 5 May, Rory Stewart indicated for the first time that the government could back a ban.

Damian Carrington

This article first appeared on the Guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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