Caithness Courier readers may have heard recent news items calling for the banning of ‘micro-beads’ in cosmetic and personal care products.
These tiny, non-biodegradable beads, which are too small to be seen by the naked eye, are added in great numbers to items such as toothpaste, shampoos, shower gels and exfoliants. After use they are washed away down the drain and into water treatment systems. However because of their small size they are not collected by these systems allowing them to be released into the ocean where they are ingested by all forms of marine life.
There are many other sources of plastic pollution affecting our oceans and we must do our best to address all of these, however considering the purely cosmetic nature of their use, microbeads remain a significant source of plastic in the ocean that can be stopped with relative ease. It is estimated that as much as 86 tonnes of microplastics are released into the environment every year in the UK from facial exfoliants alone.
Although there have been calls for an EU-wide ban, no action has yet been taken. A European Parliament resolution of 14th January 2014 on a European strategy on plastic waste in the environment called for single use plastics that cannot be recycled, such as plastic microbeads, to be phased out of the market or banned outright. Environment ministers from Sweden, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg called on the EU to ban microbeads, Italy also backed the idea, which was first proposed by the Netherlands in 2013. But other countries, including the UK, favoured a non-legislative approach.
Written declarations are a tool that MEPs can use to draw the attention of the European Commission to new legislation that they consider necessary and require the support of at least 360 MEPs to be successful. Before the summer recess of the Parliament I was happy to add my signature to a recent Declaration calling on the Commission to address the issue of microbeads in personal care products. This joint declaration highlighted the fact that microplastics originate from many different sources, including the breakdown of larger pieces, the shedding of synthetic fibres as well as the use of plastic microbeads in personal care products.
At the end of last year the United States issued a federal ban on microplastics in personal care products and the UK environment minister has recently acknowledged that in the absence of urgent EU action the UK could consider a unilateral ban. More than 140,000 people have backed a petition launched by Greenpeace UK urging the UK should follow the US in forbidding the use of “these wholly unnecessary bits of plastic”
However the oceans know no borders and action at an EU or international level makes far more sense. MEPs believe that EU legislation is needed to ensure that all primary microplastics are removed from cosmetics and personal care products as a starting point. This would create a level playing field across Europe, and ensure that no future products contain these wasteful and destructive elements.