Much to the delight of environmentalists, and no doubt a fair few sea creatures, the UK has announced it is banning plastic microbeads.
The UK government will phase out the sale and manufacture of cosmetics and hygiene products that contain the tiny pieces of plastic by 2017. The main products that include microbeads are facial scrubs, toothpastes, and shower gels. The tiny pieces of plastic are added to products to give them exfoliating properties.
Each use of any one of these products releases nearly 100,000 microbeads down your drain. They are often made of polymer plastics, such as polyethylene, polypropylene, or polystyrene, which are non-biodegradable and can accumulate in natural marine environments. They are also small enough to slip through water filtration systems.
Over 280 marine species and 50 species of seabirds have been shown to ingest microplastics. The UK Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP has claimed a plate of six oysters will contain over 50 participles of plastic. No studies have yet found any effects of microplastics on human health, but this area has been underresearched, with most studies looking into the effects on the environment as opposed to humans.
“Over 680 tonnes of microbeads are used in the UK alone every year. That's substantially more than all of the litter we pick up on our beaches in voluntary beach cleans each year, so it's not a trivial quantity,” said Professor Richard Thompson, a marine biologist from Plymouth University, according to the BBC.
Dozens of companies have already made voluntary commitments to remove microbeads from their products, including consumer-goods giant Unilever. Many manufacturers are exploring natural alternatives, such as nut shells or salt, to replace the plastics.
“Adding plastic to products like face washes and body scrubs is wholly unnecessary when harmless alternatives can be used,” said UK Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom in a statement.
“Most people would be dismayed to know the face scrub or toothpaste they use was causing irreversible damage to the environment, with billions of indigestible plastic pieces poisoning sea creatures,” she added.
In the US, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 included a pledge to ban microbeads from cosmetic products by 2017. A similar proposal has also been announced in the Italian Parliament this year.