UK government to ban microbeads from cosmetics by end of 2017

Tiny pieces of plastic in personal beauty products, that end up in the oceans and are swallowed by marine life, will be banned from sale in the UK by the end of 2017, the Government announced on Saturday.

The move comes just days after MPs called for a ban on so-called microbeads, and sees the UK following in the footsteps of the US, which has banned them beginning in mid-2017. More than 357,000 people signed a petition calling for a UK ban, and environment groups welcomed the news of the ban.

Microbeads are very small pieces of plastic in products such as facial scrubs and makeup. Some 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.

The industry had argued that it was already phasing them out voluntarily, but critics have claimed some companies were exploiting loopholes or dragging their feet on a phase-out.

Greenpeace said the new ban was welcome but should be extended to other products too.

“It’s a credit to Theresa May’s government that they’ve listened to concerns from the public, scientists, and MPs and taken a first step towards banning microbeads,” said the group’s oceans campaigner Louise Edge. “But marine life doesn’t distinguish between plastic from a face wash and plastic from a washing detergent, so it makes no sense for this ban to be limited to some products and not others, as is currently proposed.”

The Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association, which represents the industry, said it was not surprised by the ban, but did not understand why it had been singled out, given other plastic rubbish dumped in the oceans.

Dr Chris Flower, its spokesman and director general, said: “It was inevitable. But it will ban something we are not using. The survey we’ve carried out [on members] shows a 70% reduction [in products with microbeads] since 2015, and almost zero by the end of 2018.”

He said it would not increase costs to consumers, but did mean some health and beauty products would disappear from shelves, as manufacturers work to overcome “supply, quality and reliability and microbiological purity issues”.

The environment minister, George Eustice, said in May that the government “fully backed” a ban and that costs to industry would “not be that high”.

The government is to publish a consultation next week on how wide-ranging the ban should be, and which products will be covered. Keith Taylor, the Green party MEP, welcomed the ban but said it should extend much further than just beauty cosmetics.

Mary Creagh, the Labour MP and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, agreed, saying: “I’m pleased to see the Government has finally agreed with my Committee’s call for a ban on microbeads. Fish don’t care where the plastic they are eating comes from, so it’s vital the ban covers all microplastics in all down the drain products.”

The US ban, approved by Barack Obama, covers cosmetic products with plastic microbeads, including toothpaste, soap and body washes.

One cleansing product can contain hundreds of thousands of the microbeads, which end up in the oceans after being washed down sinks. Yet natural alternatives that biodegrade and pose no harm to marine life exist, including jojoba beads, apricot kernels, ground nutshells and salt.

Supermarket beauty products such as those by Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have already had the plastic dropped, and major companies such as Unilever – which owns Dove and other brands – have also phased them out. But other big names such as Procter and Gamble, which owns Crest toothpaste, Gillette, Olay, and Tesco, will not have phased them out entirely until the end of 2017.

Consumers looking to avoid microbeads in the meantime should avoid products containing polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon, campaigners say.

So far, no conclusive scientific evidence has proved the microplastics pose any threat to human health when passed up the food chain by fish. “No studies were identified that address the potential human health effects of microplastics ingested by humans through the food chain,” a review of their safety by the European Food and Safety Agency found.

Adam Vaughan

This article first appeared on the Guardian

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