New regulations tackling microbeads got cross-party backing from MPs last week. Whilst this was a step in the right direction, it was also a missed opportunity for the Government to have been much bolder on tackling plastics in our waters, which is one of the greatest challenges of our times.
Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic, usually smaller than 5mm, which can be found in everyday cosmetic products including shower gels, toothpaste and face scrubs. They are often intended to have an exfoliating effect. Up to 219,000 tonnes of this type of ‘micro–plastics’ enter the European marine environment every year and the impact isn’t just seen in the degradation of marine environments.
Recent research found that that a shocking 83% of samples of drinking water collected across the world were found to be polluted by tiny plastic particles.
The US had the highest contamination rate at 94%, whilst European nations including the UK, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate, although plastic fibres were still detected in 72% of the samples tested.
Their small size means that they can be easily ingested by marine life. Plastics have been found in fish and sea creatures living as far as 7 miles beneath the surface of the sea.
Environmentalists and consumers alike are quite rightly concerned that these plastics are entering the food chain and disrupting fragile ecosystems, so it is vital that we take any and all measures to stop it.
Last year the Environmental Audit Committee chaired by the tenacious Mary Creagh MP, pushed microbeads up the political agenda with its ground-breaking report, prompting the process which led to the new regulations agreed by MPs this week.
However the measures announced by Ministers are incredibly narrow. The regulations stipulate a ban on the use of microbeads only in “rinse off cosmetics and personal care products”.
My greatest reservation is that the Government has missed the opportunity to cover a variety of other products which use micro plastics, including cleaning products and ‘leave-on cosmetics’ including sun creams which would also ultimately be washed down the drain.
I am pleased that 72% of major cosmetics companies are expected to have ceased selling cosmetic products containing microbeads by the end of 2017 regardless of this legislation. However it concerns me that despite the public support for tackling microbeads, 28% of those companies have dug-in. They are failing to make the necessary changes and are instead waiting for new regulations to force them to take action.
David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 means that, probably for the first time, people are discussing plastics in our waters in their front rooms; the public support for action has never been greater. With that in mind, it is not good enough that the Government has settled for patting itself on the back with these new regulations, claiming that they are the first of their kind.
At this crucial moment of maximum political and public desire for action, they should have delivered a comprehensive ban that will make the maximum difference, keeping plastics out of our seas, our food chain, and our drinking water.