In early September, a UK-wide ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetic products was announced. Due to come into full force by the end of 2017, the ban signals a hopeful step in the right direction for tackling ocean plastic pollution.
Microbeads are petrochemical plastic fragments that are less than 5mm in diameter. Though their miniscule size means their ecological impact is difficult to gage visually, it is precisely for this reason that they pose such a threat to the environment. Smaller particles have a larger surface area to attract toxins, meaning that once exposed to chemical pollution in the ocean they can become poisonous; they are then frequently consumed by marine organisms mistaking them for food. Due to their compact size, the particles are transferred between trophic levels in the food chain, meaning that additionally we are ingesting unknown amounts of plastics from seafood in our diet. There is little evidence to suggest that this poses significant human health risk, but it is an undesirable side effect of the problem all the same.
The Environmental Audit Committee’s report on the matter concluded that the UK uses around 680 tonnes of microbeads per year, and that there is definite public concern over the matter. Companies do not make the issue particularly accessible to consumers, however, due to complicated or misleading labelling of products.
Although microbeads in cosmetics constitute a fairly small percentage of overall ocean plastic pollution, the ban signifies a first step towards combating the problem as long as MPs can maintain an interest in the topic for further policy down the line. Additionally, it serves as an encouraging emphasis on the need for corporate accountability in regards of environmental degradation. Previously companies had pledged to stop using microbeads but had exploited loopholes in their personal pledges by limiting the products the ban was applicable to, or not committing to the ban in all their countries of operation.
In joining the US, who is also phasing out the use of microbeads, the UK has shown initiative in committing to reducing plastic pollution. It can only be hoped that the UK will continue to lead the way on such ecological issues.