UK Government announces microbeads ban

Microbeads are used in personal goods like facial scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste.

The UK Government is set to ban the use of microbeads found in cosmetics and cleaning products like facial scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste, it was announced on 2 September.

Environment secretary Andrea Leadsom said a consultation process will start later this year, which will set out how the ban will work, with a target date for ending their use in 2017.

The tiny, spherical pieces of plastic are commonly used as an exfoliating agent, but evidence of their harmfulness to the environment has been building for almost a decade.

Microbeads are washed down plugholes and drains where they mostly end up in the residual sludge at wastewater treatment plants, but around 1% remain in solution, eventually becoming food for tiny sea creatures like plankton.

Last month the Government’s Environmental Audit Committee issued a report citing evidence for the damage caused by microplastic pollution and calling for more robust action to curb their use. Microbeads are more harmful than larger pieces of plastic, because they find their way into the food chain more easily. Over 280 marine species have been found to ingest microplastics, said the report, but the committee said more research was needed to better understand the ecological risk.

The report also said there was “little evidence” of human health impacts from microbead pollution but that further research was needed.

It’s a measure which follows on the heels of a US ban on microbeads – in cosmetics – which was announced last year. A ban is also at the discussion stage in Canada and Sweden, while the European Commission is said to be setting out proposals to ban them in cosmetics across the EU.

An appreciative response to the UK Government move was forthcoming from environmental campaigners, although some clearly want the measure to go further. Commenting on the BBC website, Greenpeace campaigner Louise Edge said it was “a credit to Therese May’s government that they’ve listened to concerns from the public, scientists and MPs, and taken a first step towards banning microbeads.”

She wished for the ban to be extended to other kinds of product in which microbeads are used, including washing detergents.

A number of cosmetics and consumer goods firms have already announced a ban, including Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal and Procter & Gamble. Unilever said it stopped using them in 2014.

The presence of microbeads in a product can generally be gleaned from the packaging, and ingredients like polyethylene, polypropylene or polymethylmethacrylate. Others include nylon, PET, PTFE and PMMA. Manufacturers in search of exfoliating alternatives are opting instead to use things like ground-up peach pits, oatmeal or sea-salt, according to the Financial Times.