Plastic Soup Foundation: UK microbeads ban first step to implementing plastic circular economy

EXCLUSIVE: The UK Government's decision to introduce a national ban on microbeads can act as an "important step" that mobilises countries to look beyond microbeads in the ocean and focus on creating a plastic circular economy "without leakage".

That is the view of the Plastic Soup Foundation’s head of programmes Jeroen Dagevos, who claimed that national governments and companies need to tackle plastic waste at its “source” instead of delaying action until plastic had impacted marine life.

“The problem of plastic in the environment only occurs to people when it enters our seas, because that’s where we measure it,” Dagevos told edie. “But, it’s everywhere. If you can put rules in place that measure and address the issues earlier on, then you can put targets in place. Right now, we’re not even aware of the main problem.”

Dagevos hailed the UK’s decision to tackle microbeads in cosmetics, which will be banned from sale in the UK by the end of 2017, stating that it would be interesting to see whether the rest of Europe adopted the ruling, or if they would push the ban further.

Having worked with Greenpeace in the past, it is unsurprising that Dagevos agrees with the organisation that while the ban is a signal of intent, it should be extended to other products like detergents too.

The Plastic Soup Foundation has also worked on the Beat the Microbead campaign, and Dagevos noted that many companies had “voluntarily” agreed to phase-out microbeads long before the UK’s announcement.

Dagevos suggested that the replacement and phase-out of microbeads wouldn’t be an issue to corporates. While he admitted that larger companies such as L’Oréal and Proctor & Gamble – which have already made moves to phase out the plastics – would have bigger challenges due to the size of the companies, he claimed that the real issues are found beyond plastics, in areas such as synthetic material clothing.

“The ban should be extended to other products,” Dagevos said. “It’s the same principle. What’s happening in cosmetics should be used as an example in other areas and to spark the same discussions about the need for plastic. The logical next step is the overall discussion of how we deal with plastic. We can’t live without it anymore, it’s in so many products and its very useful, but you cannot use it in the wrong way.

“Microbeads is an example of the wrong use of plastic. We need a fix for this, and we need rules on how to use plastic and how to avoid it leaking into the environment. It fits into the new perspective of creating a circular economy without leakage, we’re just spoiling it and creating a problem and we need to close the loop.”

Clothing conundrum

With companies like Johnson & Johnson turning to jojoba beads to replace microbeads, Dagevos claimed that the majority of firms would be able to use salt and sand “commonly used decades ago” as an adequate replacement. But in regards to areas such as synthetic material, the issue becomes more complex.

The Plastic Soup Foundation has been running research that backs up claims from Plymouth University that each cycle of a washing machine could release more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres into the environment. While the Foundation’s research claims that the number of fibres could be closer to one million, Dagevos admits that a ban is not the solution in this case.

“This is more complex than microplastics in cosmetics,” Dagevos noted. “While we don’t need them in cosmetics, you can’t easily call for everyone to get rid of synthetic clothing because its worth around 60% of the market – plus getting rid of them contributes to energy use and emissions.

“We found that you can protect yarn with coatings to get big results and less fibre loss. We can’t say too much yet, but there’s different techniques that protect the structure which stops it breaking down. Designing it differently and protecting it is the low-hanging fruit at the moment, but people want to add filters in washing machines to attract fibres which is a viable remedy too.”

The Foundation is already taking steps alongside educational campaigners Parley for the Oceans – which has previously worked with Adidas to create shoes from ocean waste – to launch the Ocean Clean Wash campaign. The campaign aims to align hundreds of companies and non-profits in a collaborative effort to change design models for clothing to prevent the breakdown of fibres. Dagevos believes that it will deliver “big results in the short-term”.

In order to address the wider-scope of plastic waste – which the Foundation is mobilising with designer clothing company G-Star RAW – Dagevos called on companies to introduce innovative new design methods that stopped “plastic leakage” occurring in new closed-loop models, while also educating the public through awareness programmes.

“We need to run awareness campaigns, but we need to incentivise people to discard waste responsibly,” Dagevos adds. “Design and sourcing needs to be different to stop it leaking out of the chain, so there’s issues in design but also in changing behaviour. I really think we need more involvement from companies to introduce innovations but also change behaviours.

“It could take, maybe three generations to stop the plastic waste issue. Good waste management systems – which isn’t the case across developing countries – is the first step, global management is a big challenge. We can do it, but we need commitment and rules.

“You can use plastic in a safe way as long as the loop is closed, we need to tackle the issue at its source and not wait for it to enter the oceans before we measure it.”

Matt Mace

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