Environmental impact of microplastics Contents


Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5mm. They are used in some cosmetic and personal care products, and can be generated unintentionally, for example from abrasive sandblasting. Other microplastics result from the breakup of larger plastic objects in the oceans. It is estimated that a total of 15-51 trillion microplastic particles have accumulated in the ocean, with between 80,000 and 219,000 tonnes of microplastics entering the sea from Europe per year.

Our starting point for this inquiry was the significant public concern around the environmental impact of microbeads - a sub-set of microplastics that are intentionally added to cosmetic products and other toiletries, usually to exfoliate the skin. 680 tonnes of plastic microbeads are used in cosmetic products in the UK every year. Microplastics from cosmetic products are estimated to make up 0.01% to 4.1% of the total microplastics entering the marine environment. The fact that this accounts for a small percentage of total microplastic pollution in the sea does not stop it being a significant, and avoidable, environmental problem. We were told that a single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean. Microbeads are also the source about which most is known. Addressing it would show commitment to reducing the wider problem of microplastics.

A large proportion of the cosmetics industry have made voluntary commitments to phase out microbeads by 2020. However, we found that a legislative ban would have advantages for consumers and the industry in terms of consistency of approach, universality and confidence. We believe that the potential risks of such an approach - e.g. disadvantaging small firms - are proportionate and can be mitigated with proper consultation. Microbeads are a transnational source of pollution and there are advantages to dealing with it on an international basis. The Government has been considering a national ban and working towards an EU ban. The outcome of the EU Referendum means their influence in that process will be significantly reduced. Nonetheless, we recommend that the Government bring forward its own legislative ban, and align it as closely as possible with international measures.

Despite the commitment by a section of the cosmetics industry to phase out microbeads we found a reluctance to talk publicly about the issue from large cosmetics manufacturers, and we found a lack of consistency in their approach. Therefore, we call on the Government to ban microbeads in the cosmetics industry, we believe this will level the playing field, and urge the Government to move swiftly towards implementation.

Microbeads are part of the wider issue of microplastic pollution. The small size of microplastics means that they can be ingested by marine life and have the potential to transfer chemicals to and from the marine environment. There is evidence of ecological damage resulting from this. If someone eats six oysters, it is likely they will have eaten 50 particles of microplastics. This is still a relatively new research area and subject to uncertainties. Relatively little research has been done so far either on potential impacts to human health or the marine economy. We recommend that the Government draw up a research strategy to assessing and mitigating microplastic pollution for the next round of research funding. Human health impacts should be a priority subject for research, along with examining ways to reduce microplastic pollution from consumer goods, such as synthetic fibres and tyres, and industrial processes, such as sandblasting.

We heard that preventing microplastics at source by stemming the flow of microplastics flushed into the oceans is the most viable option and should be the Government’s key approach in its strategy. However, there are also opportunities to capture microplastics through washing machine filtration systems and waste and water sewage treatment processes. The Government and Environment Agency should work with water companies to understand whether feasible options exist to prevent microplastic pollution at this stage.

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26 July 2016