Plastic microbeads, which are present in everyday household products such as exfoliating scrubs, toothpaste and shaving gel, should be banned, MPs have said.
Public awareness around the plastic product is growing, but many would still be unaware of the damage that can be caused - both to marine life and potentially human health, parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee said.
The cross-party committee is now demanding cosmetic companies are completely banned from using plastic microbeads.
“Trillions of tiny pieces of plastic are accumulating in the world’s oceans, lakes and estuaries, harming marine life and entering the food chain. The microbeads in scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes are an avoidable part of this plastic pollution problem,” Committee Chair Mary Creagh said
“A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean. Cosmetic companies’ voluntary approach to phasing out plastic microbeads simply won’t wash.
“We need a full legal ban, preferably at an international level as pollution does not respect borders. If this isn’t possible after our vote to leave the EU, then the Government should introduce a national ban.
“The best way to reduce this pollution is to prevent plastic being flushed into the sea in the first place.”
Microplastic pollution comes from the fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic waste, small synthetic fibres from clothing and the microbeads used in cosmetics and other products.
It is estimated that as much as 86 tonnes of microplastics is released into the environment every year in the UK from facial exfoliants alone.
The report, which was released on Wednesday, found that microplastic pollution was potentially more environmentally damaging than larger pieces of plastic because it is more likely to be eaten by wildlife.
Most large cosmetics companies have made voluntary commitments to phase out microbeads by 2020.
But the parliamentary committee urged a national ban to come into force by the end of 2017.
If a ban is not enforced, then products should be labelled clearly in order to provide transparency for customers, the committee urged.
Creagh said: “Most people would be aghast to learn that their beauty products are causing this ugly pollution.
“Cosmetic companies need to come clean and clearly label their products containing plastics.”
Microbeads became popular in the 1990s and as a result of their small size, particles can travel through wastewater sewage treatments into the ocean, causing marine environmental damage, the MPs warned.
Professor Richard Thompson, from the University of Plymouth, cited a study that estimated that 680 tonnes of microbeads are used annually in cosmetic products in the UK.
The report highlights that Professor Thompson estimates that a single 150ml container of cosmetic product could contain about three million plastic particles - none of which are biodegradable.
There is also growing concern about the effect microplastic consumption can have on human health.
“Shockingly, a plate of six oysters can contain up to 50 particles of plastic.
“More research is needed on the impact of microplastic consumption on human health,” said Creagh.
Although microbeads are a significant and avoidable part of the problem, the wider issue of microplastic pollution cannot be set aside once microbeads have been dealt with, the report found.
Between 80,000 and 219,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the marine environment across Europe per year.
Opportunities to capture microplastics through enhanced washing machine filtration systems and improved waste and water sewage treatment processes must also be explored.