Banning plastic microbeads in Britain is a positive step but we need other countries to follow suit

Even in the UK we are still flushing plastic wet wipes and tampon applicators away, blocking pipes and choking rivers

Mary Creagh
Tuesday 19 June 2018 16:30
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A new law taking effect will change your morning shower and how you brush your teeth.

A ban on the sale of toxic plastic microbeads, found in scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes, is coming into force across the United Kingdom. It marks the latest step in our nation’s efforts to cut the plastic waste, which is flooding our oceans and finding its way into sea creatures and our stomachs.

The House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, called for the ban on microbeads two years ago. A week later, the government agreed to implement it – a new world record for action prompted by a select committee!

Microbeads are just one source of microplastics, or plastic particles smaller than 5mm, but they are an enormous problem. Before a ban on manufacturing the products in January, 680 tonnes of plastic microbeads from cosmetic products entered the environment in the UK each year.

Now, we will prevent much of that pollution from finding its way into our streams and our oceans.

The microbeads ban is not just good for the environment; it can give us confidence about the food we eat. Our committee heard that a plate of six oysters can contain up to 50 particles of plastic. The government’s chief medical officer found the effects of these particles on human health "largely unquantified", but it stands to reason that they’re not good for you. The microbeads ban will not on its own get rid of these risks, but it will lessen them.

We still, however, need international cooperation to get a compete handle on the problem of microplastics. Pollution doesn’t respect national borders, particularly where the world’s oceans are involved. My committee will be looking at how the government can work better with international partners to tackle global plastic pollution.

What's more, industry needs to clean up its act: we are still flushing plastic wet wipes and tampon applicators away, blocking pipes and choking rivers. We must stop treating our seas like a sewer, or a garbage disposal unit.

Government announces plans to reduce number of people living in unsafe pollution areas

The truth is, we are only just waking up to the effects of the global plastic pandemic. Breathing in tiny airborne particles of plastic, which come from upholstery and car tyres, can cause lung damage. But there is a dearth of research into the effects this is having on people’s health. It was disappointing that the government’s Clean Air Strategy consultation failed to mention this.

The UK has a special responsibility to reduce plastic pollution. Most of the UK’s marine plastic pollution ends up in the Arctic. Plastic has been found in every species of animal there, from plankton to polar bears. It is stored in sea ice in the winter, and released in high concentrations in the summer. What impact is this having on one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems? This is something my committee will be looking at over the summer.

Before my committee’s inquiry into microbeads, they were regarded as a bottom of the pile issue. But out of sight can no longer mean out of mind. This ban marks another step towards turning back the plastic tide.

Mary Creagh is MP for Wakefield and is chair of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee

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