Environmental impact of microplastics Contents


Microbeads and wider microplastic pollution

34.Microbeads are a sub-category of microplastics, commonly manufactured for domestic use in cosmetic scrubs, toothpastes, and cleaning products.95 The UK Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) define plastic microbeads as:

Any intentionally added, 5mm or less, water insoluble, solid plastic particle used to exfoliate or cleanse in rinse-off personal care products.96

35.Microbeads became popular in personal care products in the 1990s when they were seen as an easy and versatile formulation by companies.97 Cosmetics companies added them to their personal care product portfolios, including cosmetics, lotions, face washes, toothpastes, shampoos, sunscreens, shaving creams and exfoliators. They allowed greater control over the consistency of product as compared to natural alternatives.98 Dr Laurent Gilbert, L’Oreal, said:

[Microbeads] are much more producible in terms of particulate size and exfoliation properties than the kernel powders that we used before, so that is the reason why and availability was also something that was important. […] It was really about their physical chemical properties, their versatility and the fact that you can formulate them in many different textured products without any difficulty. That is much more complex with kernel products.99

36.As a result of their small size, microbead particles can travel through wastewater sewage treatments into the ocean, causing marine environmental damage.100 Professor Richard Thompson, University of Plymouth, cited a study that estimated that 680 tonnes of microbeads are used annually in cosmetic products in the U.K.101 He also cited another study which estimated that a single 150ml container of cosmetic product could contain around 3 million plastic particles.102 Professor Galloway, University of Exeter, said, “every time you take a shower that does not have microbeads in it, you would have 100,000 fewer particles washing down the sink.”103 The Committee also heard from academics who all emphasised that microbeads, like other microplastics, do not biodegrade and therefore accumulate in the marine environment.104

37.Microbeads are a growing area of public concern with a recent Greenpeace petition calling for a UK ban attracting more than 300,000 signatures.105 Our evidence suggests there is a broad public consensus that plastic microbeads should be phased out of cosmetic products.

38.There is limited scientific literature available that assesses the relative impact of microbeads compared to overall microplastics in the ocean.106 According to DEFRA, microplastics from cosmetic products make up a small percentage of the total of micro-plastics entering the marine environment, with estimates ranging from 0.01% to 4.1%.107 They argue, “A ban in the UK would therefore be expected to have only a small impact on the environmental situation around microplastics.”108 The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) also noted the upper end of DEFRA’s estimate, arguing that cosmetic microplastics could be contributing between 2,461 and 8,627 tonnes per year to the marine environment across Europe.109 The Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) note that eradicating microbeads from cosmetics would have a minor impact on the problem as a whole in the absence of robust measures to tackle the major sources.110 The British Plastics Federation (BPF) argued that a microbead ban would have a relatively low impact on the much larger challenge of plastic pollution.111 However, Professor Galloway argued that the number of microbeads is a more important measurement framework than the total mass.112 Professor Thompson added, “It might be small in percentages, but to me what that illustrates is the scale of the wider problem, rather than trivialising the issue relating to microbeads as a source.”113

39.Experts have estimated that around 680 tonnes of plastic microbeads are used in the UK every year. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the sewage system. Microplastics from cosmetic products are believed 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, and possibly a low-hanging fruit in the context of tackling wider plastic pollution.

Voluntary commitments

40.According to Fauna & Flora International (FFI), there are currently 25 UK companies that are, or intend to become, microbead-free.114 On 21st October 2015, Cosmetics Europe, the personal care trade association, issued a recommendation to their member companies to “discontinue [microbead] use in cosmetics that are most likely to end up in the aquatic environment and for which alternatives exist.”115 They stated:

Cosmetics Europe recommends its membership to discontinue, in wash-off cosmetic products placed on the market as of 2020: The use of synthetic, solid plastic particles used for exfoliating and cleansing that are non-biodegradable in the marine environment.116

John Chave, Cosmetics Europe, said that this recommendation “applies” to 90% of their membership.117 CTPA, which represents 80-85% of the UK cosmetics market by value, argued:

This course of action was chosen because it would have an impact far more quickly than waiting for any legislative ban. Although the date for final removal was stated at 2020, the majority of use would be discontinued long before then.118

41.The phase-out of microplastic ingredients also extends to the retail industry. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) reported that many retailers are phasing out microbeads from their own-brand products, including Aldi, Asda, Asos, Boots, M&S, Morrisons, Next, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.119 However, BRC adds that their members can only dictate the composition of their own products.120 For other products, they state:

Whilst retailers will know the composition of their own brand products, retailers are not informed of the composition of branded products aside from any information that brands are legally obliged to provide. While retailers can put pressure on brands regarding the composition of products, they are not in a position to dictate this.121

42.The Committee heard from large cosmetics industry companies which planned to take action before the 2020 target. Johnson & Johnson told us that they had replaced ‘half [of their] products sold]’ based on their 2015 commitments, and further stated, “Our goal is to remove microbeads from our products globally by the end of 2017.”122 Similarly, L’Oreal said they had already phased-out microbeads in their two brands ‘Biotherm’ in 2014 and ‘The Body Shop’ in 2015.123 They said they would extend this to the whole Group’s portfolio “[by] no longer [using] microbeads of polyethylene in its scrubs by 2017.”124 Procter & Gamble also plan “to remove polyethylene microbeads from all […] cleansers and toothpastes by 2017.”125 Dr Masscheleyn, Procter and Gamble, said, “We are on track to remove all plastic microbeads from our products by the end of this calendar year, so we are just a few months away from total elimination.”126 Out of the companies we heard from, Unilever were the only business who had completed their phase-out so far.127 Ian Malcomber, Unilever, said:

We have completed our phase out. We committed to the phase out in 2012. We were one of the first companies to do that. We gave ourselves a two-year deadline to do that and we completed that at the end of 2014.128

43.Despite the voluntary commitments, NGOs argued that there are inconsistencies in the approach taken by the companies in phasing out microbeads.129 FFI argued that microplastics remained in personal care and cosmetic products, in spite of the existence of voluntary commitments in this sector.130 They found that 16% of over 1,300 UK personal care and cosmetic products randomly sampled by them contained solid microplastic ingredients.131 They also conducted an evaluation of existing commitments against criteria which they considered necessary to constitute a robust and meaningful commitment.132 These criteria included: the phasing out of all solid microplastic ingredients, across all products that go down the drain, applying to all of the company’s brands, all of the markets it is active in, all future formulations of those products, with no exemption for biodegradable plastics or and no lower size limit for the particle being phased out.133 We heard from Daniel Steadman, Fauna & Flora International, who argued that at least seven major multinational brands have failed at least one of these criteria.134 He said:

It might be that they made these commitments when the understanding of the issue wasn’t at maturity, but […] this causes consumer confusion. [Consumers] might be aware that their favourite brand has phased out microbeads, but actually what that company’s definition of microbeads is too narrow to be adequately dealing with the problem.135

Professor Thompson also said the criteria and definitions used in the wording of the ban are important:

The term microbead is an industry phrase lacking a definition of clear relevance to the problems of microplastic in the environment. Legislation in some other countries may have inadvertently left ambiguity and we need to be sure this is not the case in the UK.136

44.Whilst the majority of witnesses, including the Government, supported voluntary phase-out by cosmetic companies, NGOs had concerns regarding the time frame and commitment levels.137 For example, The Cornwall Plastic Pollution Coalition welcomed companies that had pledged to stop using plastic microbeads but emphasised that “a voluntary industry phase out by 2020 is too slow and will be too patchy.”138 They argue:

The weaknesses of voluntary industry action can be seen in Operation Clean Sweep, the plastic industry scheme to prevent pollution from UK plastics plants through loss of pre-production pellets. After seven years this has still only been signed by 53 out of over 3,000 companies.139

45.We welcome the commitment by a section of the cosmetics industry to phase out microbeads. However, the commitment is not universal, and there are inconsistencies in approach. Some companies will not phase out until 2020 and, since this commitment is voluntary, some companies may not phase out at all. Voluntary action alone will not be adequate to tackle the challenges of microbeads, and believe that a legislative ban would be beneficial in bringing greater consistency in the industry.

Legislative action

46.The US have already issued a legal ban on microbeads in cosmetic products. Through the Microbead-Free Waters Act 2015, the US will ban the manufacture or interstate trade of products containing microplastics.140 This Act will ban rinse-off cosmetics products containing microbeads from 2018 and the manufacture of these products by 2017.141 According to Johnson & Johnson, there were three critical elements of the US Act that allowed them to support the legislation:

i)An accurate and appropriately scoped definition of microbeads;

ii)Implementation dates that allow adequate time (usually around 2-3 years) to complete product reformulation and ensure that consumers have an uninterrupted flow of product; and

iii)Federal pre-emption to ensure national consistency of approach.142

Other countries that are considering bans include Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada, and Kenya.143

47.In the EU there is currently no legislation regulating the use and discharge of microplastics in cosmetic and personal care products. Cosmetics Europe and CTPA both argued that existing voluntary commitments were sufficient. The CTPA state:

Given that the phase-out by industry is already underway, we do not think that a ban would have much impact. This being said, the European cosmetics industry does not object in principle since a ban would ensure that any companies who choose not to follow the recommendation would still have to comply with the objective of acting responsibly and removing this source of pollution of the marine environment.144

The BPF and Plastics Europe agreed. They stated:

In view of the voluntary commitment of the cosmetic industry a ban should not be necessary and it would involve an unnecessary expenditure of taxpayer money that could be put to better use.145

48.Dr Erik van Sebille, Imperial College, said that an international ban would be much more effective than a national ban on microbeads in tackling the much larger challenge of plastic pollution. However, he argued that a national ban was an important place to start:

A microbead ban is about taking action to tackle ocean plastic pollution at source and, in our view, this is the right way to address the problem, making it a good choice of policy. […] Banning plastics for this use will also demonstrate that the government and other stakeholders in the UK are willing to use policy levers to tackle pollution at source.146

Daniel Steadman argued that “there is a clear role for the UK Government to play in providing guidance and providing a level playing field” through a legislative ban. Whilst, CHEM Trust, a UK-based charity working to protect humans and wildlife from harmful chemicals, argued:

A UK ban on microbeads would be a start, but EU-wide action would be more effective. The UK government should be pushing the European Commission to propose regulation in this area.147

Keep Britain Tidy, an environmental charity, also argued that a ban could increase international cooperation:

A number of European countries, Canada and Australia are all considering a legislative route also. If we lead the way we may well influence others to join in and strengthen international action against the microplastics issue.148

49.In relation to international cooperation, DEFRA said, that they are “supporting other EU Member States in calling for the European Commission to come up with proposals to ban micro-beads in cosmetics and detergents.”149 George Eustice, Minister at DEFRA, added:

We supported and played quite a key role in getting the OSPAR agreement, the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, in 2014.150

50.We heard that the last Government would have considered a unilateral ban on plastic microbeads in shower gels and facial scrubs if the EU did not prohibit their use. The Minster said:

We are working with other European countries to get that on the agenda at European level. But we do not rule out doing it at national level if that falls short or fails to progress.151

One of the mechanisms for action is through the EU Circular Economy Package. George Eustice, Minister at DEFRA, said:

If things go well and it has a fair wind, it is quite possible you could have [a ban through the EU Circular Economy Package] in place next year, during 2017.152

51.The Minister noted that a legislative ban might benefit those companies already taking action:

If the big, responsible companies are saying, “We will voluntarily get rid of these anyway”, frankly it does not matter to them any more if you decide to put in place a ban. If anything, it gives them the reassurance that they will not be placed at a disadvantage from a few companies that might decide not to.153

52.Legislative action would have several advantages for consumers and the industry over the current, voluntary, approach to microbeads. It would be universal, ensuring consumer confidence and preventing responsible companies being undercut. It would ensure consistent definitions were used by all industry participants. It would also send a message that Government was serious about addressing the wider issue of microplastic pollution. In working towards such legislation, the Government should consult widely on implementation to ensure that the main risk - smaller companies being disadvantaged - is mitigated.

53.Microbead pollution does not respect national borders. Legislative measures to prevent the sale or manufacture of microbeads will be more effective if undertaken on a transnational basis. The last Government recognised this, and had been working towards EU legislation by the middle of next year. The outcome of the Referendum on EU Membership means that work will now be taken forward by other countries and the new Government, and the UK will have much less influence over it. However, the benefits of cross-border consistency remain.

54.We recommend that the Government introduce a legislative ban on the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and other toiletries. The legislation should follow the principles set out by Fauna & Flora International around universality and consistency. The Government should ensure consistency with international legislation - particularly with whatever EU measures are introduced - wherever possible, though we regret that this means the UK will have less control over the specific design of the ban.

Alternatives to microbeads

55.Natural materials including cocoa beans, ground almonds, ground apricot pits, sea salt, ground pumice and oatmeal can be used as alternatives to microbeads in cosmetics products.154 Professor Galloway argued there are many alternative particles that are organic and are therefore more likely to biodegrade as compared to microbeads.155 She highlighted:

The majority of microbeads in cosmetics are made out of polyethylene and there have been some estimates from polymer scientists that in a year only 0.1% of polyethylene would be broken down to its constituents […]. So if you continued to produce polyethylene […] then you are obviously going to accumulate and accumulate, whereas if you put an organic compound that was going to degrade, you would not have that accumulating effect.156

Neal’s Yard Remedies have never used microbeads in their products and argue that the quality of their products does not suffer because of this.157 They argue:

There is a plentiful array of highly effective natural sustainable options that have a hugely reduced impact on the environment. These alternatives, such as ground apricot kernels, can provide additional income to suppliers.158

Furthermore, they highlight that many of their customers are “reassured that they are not contributing to the growing problem of microplastic pollution when using [their] products.”159

56.Businesses in the cosmetics industry have told us that they are identifying natural alternatives for their products which can meet environmental and health standards.160 However, the reformulation of alternative ingredients can take time. For example, Johnson & Johnson, said, “[we] have been conducting environmental safety assessments of alternatives [to] ensure that the alternatives we choose are safe and environmentally sound […].”161 Similarly, L’Oreal noted that alternatives “requires the analysis & identification […] that can meet many criteria (including human & environmental safety, efficacy, sustainable sourcing of the raw material and overall costs).”162 Dr Laurent Gilbert, L’Oreal, said:

The standard time to develop a product is between 12 to 18 months, which is the standard timeframe when you have to redo everything regarding the stability of the product, regarding the microbiology protection of the product, compatibility with the packaging.163

Businesses have also told us that microbeads will not be switched for biodegradable plastics.164 Instead, Ian Malcomber, Unilever, told us that they had “reformulated […] into silica, which is effectively the same as quartz, [a major component of sand and] a mineral that you would find in the environment. […] The other alternatives we moved into was ground walnut shells and cornmeal in our products.”165

57.We also heard that businesses were applying sustainable sourcing strategies when seeking alternative ingredients. Dr Laurent Gilbert, L’Oreal, said, “We have a commitment to have all the ingredients from natural origin that we are using sustainably sourced.”166 Similarly, Ian Malcomber, Unilever, said, “[In] 2010 Unilever produced a Unilever sustainable living plan, which is a set of sustainability commitments across a number of areas. That does include sustainable sourcing.”167

58.Microbeads have been particularly controversial because of the existence of several viable alternatives which do not have the same environmental impacts. Where those alternatives are natural in origin, companies should ensure they are sustainably sourced. Where they are artificially produced, they should ensure that appropriate environmental impact assessments are undertaken. The Government should include these conditions in its legislation.

Transitional issues (labelling)

59.The elimination of microbeads in cosmetics has been the central focus of a number of recent campaigns, including Beat the Microbead, an international coalition of NGOs working to get companies to remove plastic microbeads from products such as facial scrubs and toothpastes.168 Two Dutch NGOs, the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation, launched a smartphone application in 2012 which allows consumers to scan bar codes of cosmetic products to check if they contain microbeads.169

60.There were disagreements between the NGOs and businesses regarding the voluntary commitments, in particular, the transparency of labelling. For example, the Dove Original Stick Antiperspirant deodorant, a Unilever brand, listed polyethylene in its ingredients.170 Ian Malcomber, Unilever, argued that this was “polyethylene in its liquid form; in its soluble form”171 which “will be a lot more degradable and will not have the same physical effects [as a solid plastic form].”172 Dr Masscheleyn, Procter & Gamble, highlighted that the labelling of polyethylene was covered by law:

[Procter and Gamble] follow the regulation, and one of the requirements is to label according to the international nomenclature for cosmetic ingredients. Plastic microbeads are described as polyethylene. The products that contain plastic microbeads have clearly labelled on the back “polyethylene.”173

61.Businesses believed it was unnecessary to add microbead labelling as they were already phasing-out microbeads in their products. Dr Masscheleyn, Procter & Gamble, said:

For [Procter & Gamble], which has committed to be out of plastic microbeads and to put in resources to accelerate our plan as much as we can, therefore, I do not see a need to label.174

Ian Malcomber, Unilever, added:

The labelling of “containing microplastics” does not really apply to [Unilever]. I think we are very public on our website of our commitment to get out of microplastic beads and we have succeeded in that.175

However, responding to the suggestion that products should clearly state they contained microbeads, Dr Chris Flower, CTPA, said:

[That] would be effectively to post an advert saying, ‘Do not buy my product’”.176

62.Consumers should be able to tell whether the products they are buying contain microbeads. The industry is failing to label products containing microbeads clearly, and the companies we heard from were reluctant to change their labelling practices. Regulations for labelling are also failing to provide consumers with the clarity they need. In the absence of meaningful action by companies to label their products more clearly, we recommend that the Government introduces a clear labelling scheme for microbeads so that consumers may choose whether they wish to buy products containing microbeads. . The industry told us that transparent labelling of microbeads would amount to an invitation not to buy products with microbeads in. Transparency to date has been provided by initiatives by NGOs. We recognise that this is a transitional issue and that there are costs associated with changing labels. Our preferred outcome would be a national ban on microbeads in cosmetics and toiletries by the end of next year. Failing that, we recommend that the Government introduce a clear labelling scheme for microbeads during the transitional period of a voluntary phase out to provide transparency for customers.

95 Plastic Ocean (EIM0021), DEFRA (EIM0034), Veolia (EIM0039)

96 The Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association (EIM0038)

97 Q170, Q419, Q452, Q469, Q487

98 Q8, Q78, Q237

99 Q469

100 Plymouth University (EIM0011)

101 As above

102 As above

103 Q7

104 Q41, Q43, Q282

105 Q92, Greenpeace UK (EIM0020)

106 Grantham Institute, Imperial College (EIM0027)

107 DEFRA (EIM0034)

108 As above

109 Marine Conservation Society (EIM0025)

110 The Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association (EIM0038)

111 British Plastics Federation (EIM0041)

112 Q17

113 Q270

114 Fauna & Flora International (EIM0016)

115 Cosmetics Europe (EIM0032)

116 ‘Cosmetics Europe recommendation on solid plastic particles (plastic micro particles), Cosmetics Europe Press Release, 21 October 2015

117 Q165

118 The Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association (EIM0038)

119 British Retail Consortium (EIM0037)

120 As above

121 British Retail Consortium (EIM0037)

122 Johnson & Johnson (EIM0042)

123 L’Oreal (EIM0043)

124 As above

125What are Microbeads?’, Procter & Gamble

126 Q406

127 Q407

128 Q407

129 Q65, Q69, Q129, Fauna & Flora International (EIM0016)

130 Fauna & Flora International (EIM0016)

131 As above

132 Q65

133 Fauna & Flora International (EIM0016))

134 Q67

135 Q65

136 Professor Richard Thomson (EIM0053)

137 Q65, Q68, Q87, Q114, Fauna & Flora International (EIM0016)

138 Cornwall Plastic Pollution Coalition (EIM0054)

139 Cornwall Plastic Pollution Coalition (EIM0054)

140 Thomas Stanton (EIM0033)

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

142 Johnson & Johnson (EIM0042)

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

144 The Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association (EIM0038)

145 British Plastics Federation (EIM0041)

146 Q91

147 CHEM Trust (EIM0010)

148 Keep Britain Tidy (EIM0029)

149 DEFRA (EIM0034)

150 Q287 (George Eustice)

151 Q287 (George Eustice)

152 Q372 (George Eustice)

153 Q369 (George Eustice)

154 DEFRA (EIM0034), Neal’s Yard Remedies (EIM0036), Veolia (EIM0039), L’Oreal (EIM0043), Yorkshire Water (EIM0052), Cornwall Plastic Pollution Coalition (EIM0054)

155 Q3

156 As above

157 Neal’s Yard Remedies (EIM0036)

158 Neal’s Yard Remedies (EIM0036)

159 As above

160 Q484

161 Johnson & Johnson (EIM0042)

162 L’Oreal (EIM0043)

163 Q448

164 Q461

165 Q420

166 Q484

167 As above

168 Marine Conversation Society (EIM0025)

169 Thomas Stanton (EIM0033)

170 Q409

171 Q413

172 Q414

173 Q410

174 Q406

175 Q407

176 Q405

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

26 July 2016