This Commons Library briefing paper examines the use of microplastics and microbeads and plans to ban their use in the UK. It also discusses their possible impacts on the environment and human health.
Download the full report
Microbeads and microplastics
Microbeads and other microplastics are used in a variety of cosmetic and personal care products such as scrubs, soaps, lotions and toothpastes. They are added to these products for a number of purposes, such as to make the product more abrasive or for decoration.
These particles of plastic can enter the environment when consumers rinse them down the drain. The plastic can then subsequently be released into rivers and the sea with waste water outflows.
The scale of the issue
Microplastic debris in marine environments is growing in volume. It comes from a number of sources, such as the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic over time and industrial scrubbers used to blast-clean surfaces.
Microbeads and other microplastics from cosmetics make up a small proportion of marine microplastic pollution. Studies have calculated that 0.1% to 4.1% of marine microplastic pollution in Europe was from cosmetic product sources. 4.1% equates to between 2,400-8,600 tonnes of plastic entering the marine environment per year.
Impacts of microplastics
Microplastics are likely to have environmental impacts. Studies have shown they can be ingested by marine animals leading to physical harm and reproductive or toxic effects.
There is evidence to suggest that microplastics are entering the human food chain. On the basis of current evidence microplastics in seafood are not currently thought to represent a human health risk, although uncertainties remain. The Government has said that the Chief Medical Officer will review their impact on human health.
Cosmetic microplastic ban
A number of companies are voluntarily phasing out some types of microplastic in cosmetic products in the EU. The voluntary measures taken by industry could reduce cosmetic microplastic use by almost 50% by 2020.
In the USA a ban on microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products will be phased in over the next few years. There have been calls for a similar ban in the UK and EU to address what is perceived to be an unnecessary source of microplastic pollution. In September 2016, the UK Government committed to banning the manufacture and sale of cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads in all of the UK by October 2017. In December 2016, the Government published a consultation document, which closes on 28 February 2017.
News of the Government’s proposed ban was welcomed by the Marine Conservation Society. However, some in the industry question the proportionality of a ban given the success of voluntary efforts and the relatively small contribution that cosmetic products make to marine pollution. A recent research report commissioned by the European Union recommended that more information be collected to help determine whether a ban is required or whether the industry is responding adequately to the issue.