Environmental impact of microplastics Contents

1Introduction

1.Microplastics are generally classified as particles smaller than 5mm.1 They are used in some cosmetic and personal care products, for example as exfoliation microbeads, and can be generated unintentionally, for example from, fibres from clothes, particles from tyres, and abrasive sandblasting.2 Other microplastics result from the breakup of larger plastic objects in the oceans.3

2.The small size of microplastics means that they can end up flushed into the sea and causing damage to the marine environment. There are currently no systems to fully filter them out through waste water treatment.4 One study estimated that a total of 15-51 trillion microplastic particles have accumulated in the ocean.5 The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) estimated that there are between 80,000 and 219,000 tonnes of microplastics entering the marine environment from Europe per year.6

3.Our starting point for this inquiry was 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. Although microbeads are only one source of microplastic pollution, accounting for a small proportion of the overall impact, we took the view that looking at their use is an important starting point for addressing the wider issue of microplastic pollution.

4.Microplastics and their environmental impact are a relative recent subject of study. There are many areas where further research will be required. The aim of our inquiry was to investigate the scale of the problem of microplastics and establish what is known. We looked specifically at the issues of microbeads and the impact of the Government’s proposed legislative ban. This also included an examination of what is known about the health consequences microplastics and the extent of the damage to our marine eco-systems.

5.A research briefing note by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) summarises microplastic sources and spread, the evidence that they present a risk and possible strategies to reduce plastic pollution.7 A briefing paper produced by the House of Commons Library also provides key information on the use of microplastics and microbeads, and their possible impacts on the environment and human health.8

6.The terms of reference for the inquiry can be found on our website. We held five public hearings with academics, NGOs, Cosmetics Trade Associations, Multinational Corporations, and George Eustice, Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). In addition, we received a range of written evidence, which is published on our website. A full list of witnesses can be found at the end of this report. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence to this inquiry. We would also like to thank Dr Jonathan Wentworth and Ciara Stafford from POST for their assistance.


1 Q21, Q87, Q263, Greenpeace UK (EIM0020)

2 Q1, Q27, Q69, Q77, Q120

3 Brunel University (EIM0028)

4 Veolia (EIM0039), United Utilities (EIM0047), Northumbrian Water (EIM0049), Thames Water (EIM0051), Yorkshire Water (EIM0052), Water UK (EIM0055)

5 Environmental Investigation Agency (EIM0022)

6 As above

7 Marine Microplastic Pollution, POST Note 528, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, June 2016

8 Microbeads and microplastics in cosmetic and personal care products, Briefing Paper Number 7510, House of Commons Library, May 2016




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26 July 2016