The Government is to go ahead with a ban on “rinse-off” plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products following a public consultation, it has announced.
Exfoliating scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste are among the products to be affected.
The cosmetics industry resisted calls for “leave-on” products like make-up and sunscreen to be included in the ban, saying they would have to reformulate up to 90 per cent of their products, which would be “difficult” and “expensive”.
The Government, which will introduce the necessary legislation later this year, said an expert committee would consider whether other products should be included in the ban, which would be enforced by warnings and fines.
Greenpeace UK hailed the move as “the strongest ban on microbeads in the world to date”. The Marine Conservation Society also welcomed the announcement, but said microbeads should be banned from any product that was likely to end up being flushed “down the drain”.
The news came as Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, promised further action to reduce the amount of plastic waste getting into the sea, saying it was “putting marine wildlife under serious threat”.
In a summary of responses to the consultation by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), officials said that “based on this evidence the overall objective of our proposals remains to ban the use of rinse-off plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products where there is clear and robust evidence of harm to the marine environment”.
It said the timescale for the ban in England becoming effective would remain the same – manufacture will be outlawed from 1 January next year with sales prohibited from 30 June.
“We have developed precise definitions of ‘microbead’, ‘plastic’ and ‘rinse-off personal care product’ to clearly define the scope of the ban,” the document said.
“We have retained the scope of rinse-off products, but are additionally working with the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee (HSAC) to assess the case for addressing further categories of products.
“We have identified Trading Standards as a suitable regulator to manage compliance and enforcement in England.
“Enforcement in England will be carried out through a range of sanctions including variable monetary penalties, compliance notices, stop notices and enforcement undertakings.”
It added that the devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were “considering appropriate enforcement mechanisms, regulators and timescales according to devolution settlements”.
Banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics is seen as an easy way of reducing the amount of small pieces of plastic getting into the sea, partly because they are used as exfoliants and there are natural replacements.
However, most plastic gradually breaks down over time into tiny pieces, some of which are small enough to pass through the gut of animals and into their blood vessels and body tissues.
Microplastic has spread all over the planet, with one estimate suggesting there are 300 billion pieces in the Arctic Ocean alone.
A major study found humans have produced a staggering 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since 1950, creating 6.3 billion tons of waste. Nearly 80 per cent of that waste has been dumped in landfill sites or simply thrown away into the environment.
The Defra document said the majority of the 431 responses it received to the consultation “welcomed the proposed ban”.
“Many respondents recognised the need to take further action to address additional sources of marine litter. Responses included suggestions on additional sources of marine pollution from a variety of industries and applications, as well as relevant research,” it said.
“Responses also included possible interventions to address other sources of marine pollution, including improvements to infrastructure, developing technologies and voluntary commitments.”
It said some had called for the ban to be extended to include “leave-on” make-up and sunscreen, since these can be eventually washed down the drain or enter the marine environment directly.
However, the Defra document added: “Other respondents stated that the ban should not be extended to leave-on cosmetics because they said there was a lack of evidence of environmental impact and that reformulating these products would be difficult.
“Responses from the cosmetics industry indicated that the reformulation of thousands of products would be required. They stated that some companies may require up to 90 per cent of their product portfolios to be reformulated.
“They noted that reformulation is lengthy and expensive and as such would have significant cost implications for the whole industry, particularly small companies, could damage global competitiveness, restrict consumer choice and could mean that large quantities of products would have to go to landfill if insufficient time were given for reformulation.”
In a speech at environmental campaign group WWF UK, Mr Gove said nine billion fewer carrier bags had been distributed since the Government introduced a 5p charge on carrier bags in October 2015.
Some £95m had been donated to environmental, educational and other good causes, he added.
“But there is more we can do to protect our oceans, so we will explore new methods of reducing the amount of plastic – in particular plastic bottles – entering our seas, improve incentives for reducing waste and litter, and review the penalties available to deal with polluters,” Mr Gove said.
This was, he said, “all part of a renewed strategy on waste and resources that looks ahead to opportunities outside the EU”.
Dr Laura Foster, head of the Marine Conservation Society’s pollution programme, said it was “great news” that the ban on microbeads in “rinse-off” products was going ahead.
But, she added: “It should be for all microplastics that can end up going down the drain.
“We know there are companies that produce products that don’t have [microplastic], so it is possible.”
Ms Foster said many people did not realise that when they applied some kinds of sunscreen they were “covering their bodies with bits of microplastic”, which are used to reflect sunlight.
Some types of make-up also use microbeads as a filler.
One problem is that the myriad of different words to indicate microbeads in ingredient lists make it hard for consumers to know if a product contains them.
“Even if you want to be conscientious and buy a product that doesn’t have plastic in, you are completely confused when you go and look at the ingredients,” Ms Foster said.
She urged companies making cosmetics without plastic microbeads to make this clear on their labelling to help people make an “informed choice”.
Louisa Casson, a Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner, said: “The UK Government has just proposed the strongest ban on microbeads in the world to date. This is great news for our environment and a positive sign of Britain’s global leadership on ocean plastics.
“It’s crucial that ministers have left the door open to broadening the ban in future. To achieve a fully comprehensive ban covering all products that go down the drain, we need companies to be much more transparent about when their products contain harmful microbeads.
“This week, new figures reminded us of the enormous scale of the plastic problem, with the vast majority of all plastic made since 1950s polluting our land and seas or buried in landfill. Now that ministers have acknowledged the broader need to end ocean plastics, they should take swift action to tackle the mountain of single-use plastic bottles threatening our oceans by introducing a deposit return scheme.”