Environmental impact of microplastics Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Microplastic Pollution

1.There is significant public concern around microbeads, however, they make up a small proportion of total microplastic pollution. The wider issue of microplastic pollution cannot be set aside once microbeads have been dealt with. We recognise the research is still relatively new and subject to uncertainties. We recommend that the Government work towards a systematic strategy for researching and mitigating sources of microplastic pollution. We suggest that synthetic fibres and tyres are two sources that should be examined at an early stage. (Paragraph 13)

2.The impacts on the marine environment are still being researched. However, there is evidence that there is scope for significant harm to the marine environment. Microplastic pollution is potentially more environmentally damaging than larger pieces of plastic because small pieces of plastic are more likely to be eaten by wildlife and have a greater surface area which can transfer chemicals to and from the marine environment. (Paragraph 20)

3.There is little evidence on potential human health impacts of microplastic pollution. What evidence there is suggests that dietary exposure is likely to be low. Further research in this area is underway and is clearly required. The Government should set out a timescale within which it will publish an assessment of the potential health impacts and any measures it intends as a response. (Paragraph 26)

4.The Committee heard that studies estimating the economic costs of microplastic pollution vary widely. As with the health impacts, the Government should set out a timescale in which it intends to produce a more accurate assessment. It should also ensure that microplastics are treated as an economic issue – within the scope of its food and farming strategy - as well as an environmental one. (Paragraph 29)

5.It is important to address microplastic pollution as a transnational problem and to understand that plastic in the ocean is in constant motion. The Government should continue international cooperation despite uncertainties arising from the EU referendum. It is clear that international action is needed. We recommend the Government maintain existing cooperation with international partners in tackling microplastic pollution. Up to now, NGOs have taken the lead role in addressing this issue. However, this is unsustainable given the increasing costs and demands relating to microplastic pollution. As more evidence emerges about the impact of microplastic pollution, the Government must take on that role. (Paragraph 33)


6.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. (Paragraph 39)

7.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. (Paragraph 45)

8.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. (Paragraph 52)

9.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. (Paragraph 53)

10.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. (Paragraph 54)

11.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. (Paragraph 58)

12.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. (Paragraph 62)

Microplastic prevention and solutions

13.The most effective solution to tackling microplastic pollution in the marine environment is to tackle it at the source. This means stemming the flow of primary microplastics, and general plastics, entering the marine environment in the first place. We heard that taking action to tackle ocean plastic pollution at source is the best strategy, and we believe that this is also the most feasible option in the short-term. (Paragraph 65)

14.We heard that prevention at source by reducing the number of microplastics flushed into the oceans is most viable. However, there are also opportunities to capture microplastics through effective waste and water sewage treatment processes which currently do not require the monitoring of microplastics. We recognise the heavy investment needed in this area, and that there is difficulty in filtering microplastics. Therefore, we recommend that the Government and Environment Agency work with Water Companies to understand what feasible options there are to monitor and ultimately reduce microplastic pollution. (Paragraph 73)

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26 July 2016