Have you been rubbing microplastics on your face - or brushing your children's teeth in them?
How Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge has helped bring about ban on microplastic menace that pollutes our oceans.
‘This product is a children’s bubble bath, bought earlier this year,” says Tanya Cox at Fauna & Flora International, holding up an innocent-looking bottle from a world-famous family brand, with colourful liquid inside.
“If you look at it, you think there’s nothing unusual in it, but if you twist it you can see glittery bits. That’s PET – the same plastic that the bottle is made of.”
This is an example of the use of microplastic ingredients – pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size – in everyday household products. Once you’ve finished washing your child with them, they will of course go down the drain – and ultimately enter the environment.
Ominously, we haven’t just been bathing our children in plastic. You may have brushed their teeth with it in the past too. Certain toothpastes have been found to be laden with microplastics – and it took an outcry from parents for manufacturers to change the habit.
When you’ve finished unwittingly putting your children through a plastic experience and got them off to bed – tucked up in clothes laden with plastic fibres that come off in the wash, perhaps – then maybe it’s time to turn attention to yourself.
How about a nice facial scrub to relax? Just watch out for the ones containing microbeads – one type of entirely unnecessary microplastic ingredient deployed in cosmetics for exfoliating purposes.
It’s unpleasant enough to think about, but microplastic pollution also has far-reaching and devastating environmental impacts.
“These products are designed to be washed off the body and the particles are too small to be retained by waste water treatment processes, which means they flow straight out into the environment,” explains Tanya.
As discussed in our earlier feature on microplastics, many fish and birds end up ingesting these tiny plastic particles, sometimes mistaking them for fish eggs, giving them a false sense of fullness, impacting on hormone production and even crossing into their bodily tissues.
Some of the 300 species affected end up, of course, on our dinner plates – giving rise to the scenario that we could be reabsorbing the plastic with which we’ve previously brushed our children’s teeth, with unknown consequences.
The good news is that from January 1, 2018, the manufacture of products with microplastic ingredients that are designed to be rinsed off will be outlawed.
And this change in the law has come about thanks to years of scientific studies and relentless campaigning from Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and its partners in the ‘microbeads coalition’ – the Environmental Investigation Agency, Greenpeace UK and the Marine Conservation Society.
Tanya has been in charge of FFI’s marine plastics projects at their HQ in the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge.
She says: “The practice has been running for a long time. I have seen a patent from the 1960s that suggests using pulverised, polyethylene plastic instead of natural talc in face powder for women. It’s easy to apply and you can colour it whatever shade you want… It recommended using 90 per cent plastic in this product.
“What concerns us is that it’s entirely avoidable. There are natural alternatives, particularly in the case of microbeads for exfoliation. You can use ground nut shells, kernels, salt, sugar – they all perform exactly the same function.
“So we set out to understand how wide the practice was. First, we focused on scrubs because people can relate easily to them – you can see the plastics and feel them on your skin.
“We produced a list of scrubs that were free from plastic ingredients in The Good Scrub Guide. We used this as a tool to approach companies to encourage commitments to stop using microplastic ingredients in their product ranges and create an opportunity to champion those who weren’t using them.
“We partnered with the Marine Conservation Society to promote the guide, to start raising awareness and inform buying choices.
“We also partnered with organisations in the Netherlands to produce a smartphone app that consumers could use to scan products and see if they contained plastic.”
She explains: “Our primary aim was to work with companies to change practices. We had a lot of success.
“Initially, companies didn’t want to talk about this but increased publicity of the issue and increased evidence of the scale of the problem and the impact on the environment started to change that position.
“Some of the multinationals made public commitments to end microplastic or microbead use. Once those early adopters were announced, we started to see a step change.
“We published commitments from 30 companies on World Ocean Day 2015 promising to phase out or never use microplastic ingredients.
“A slow drip-feed became quite fast. But we saw real disparities in the extent of the commitments. Some committed to removing all microplastics, some to microbeads. Some multinationals extended it to all their brands, others were limited.
“So it was clear more needed to be done. The issue started gaining the attention of policy-makers and we began to see state-wide bans in the US and the first national ban in the States was introduced at the end of 2015.”
The US ban introduced during Barack Obama’s presidency was welcome, but only covered microbeads used in exfoliating scrubs.
“When it became apparent that children’s toothpaste contained plastic ingredients, parents were outraged they were giving them these products to use in good faith,” says Tanya.
“We have some information on our website about toothpaste – we did a mini version of the Good Scrub Guide. Most of the toothpaste producers reacted quite quickly and committed to remove the ingredients quite early on. It’s growing harder to find toothpaste with these in.”
As consumer pressure and public awareness grew, FFI approached Greenpeace UK, the Marine Conservation Society and the Environment Investigation Agency to help form a coalition calling for legislative change in the UK.
“Greenpeace ran a petition which was the most successful they had run on the issue, which demonstrated the number of people who really didn’t want to be using these products, especially when it extends to children’s products, toothpastes and all sorts,” says Tanya.
“The issue was referred to the Environmental Audit Committee and the government has committed to banning microplastics on the back of evidence we and our coalition partners submitted to the hearings.”
It is an achievement for which FFI and its coalition partners can be proud – for the legislation is the most far-reaching of its kind, although it still falls short of what could be achieved.
“There will be a two-part ban,” explains Tanya. “The first will ban the production of products containing microplastic ingredients.
“The second part comes into effect six months later in July 2018, which will ban the sale of the products. So companies have a period of grace to sell out their stock.
“Although it’s called a microbead ban, the government has committed to ban all microplastic ingredients less than 5mm in size, which was a really welcome action.
“The scope of the ban extends beyond exfoliators – the ban is not limited by the functionality – but it is limited to rinse-off products and there is a little ambiguity about what ‘rinse-off’ means.
“We welcome the ban, because it is the most progressive that has been introduced to date. However, we were disheartened that it did not cover all consumer products.
“Toiletries like face scrubs and toothpaste will be in the scope but make-up, for example – which can contain microplastic ingredients, and can be washed off and reach the environment – falls outside it.
“Similarly, domestic cleaning products fall outside the ban, which we were disappointed with.
“There are conversations under way to whether future renditions of the legislation could be modified to cover it.”
So why not include such products from the outset?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” replies Tanya. “As part of the consultation process in January-February, the government felt it hadn’t received enough evidence that microplastic ingredients from these other products can reach the environment.
“There is now published evidence of microbeads from exfoliators in the environment, which the government felt justified its action in banning rinse-off products and there is an obvious cause and effect, as the products are designed to be rinsed off.
“In the case of make-up, a lot of them are designed to be taken off with make-up remover, with cloths that should be thrown in the bin.
“We submitted the results of a YouGov study to the government that asked consumers how they take off their make-up. In more cases than not, consumers wash it off, or they use tissues that get flushed down the toilet. Or they misuse wipes that shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet but are.
“We tried to make the argument that fully eliminating this source would require covering all products that could potentially reach the environment, regardless of design or intention. But it didn’t go forward in this case unfortunately.
“On the cleaning products, it’s very difficult to gain information about what goes in them because they don’t have the same labelling laws as products for use on human skin, so gathering a database of ingredients was impossible.
“Evidence from the cleaning product trade association suggests that these ingredients aren’t used in cleaning products in the UK. However, we do know that in Europe that’s not always the case, so we tried to argue that to future-proof the legislation they should be covered by the ban.
“There may be future modifications.”
FFI will help other stakeholders around the world seek legislative change.
“We’ve been approached by somebody in the Philippines who is interested in campaigning for a ban on microbeads,” reveals Tanya.
FFI is also tracking other sources of microplastic pollution, such as fibres in clothing, textiles or upholstery. Abrasive action can shed tiny particles of this plastic during production or everyday activity – such as wearing or washing clothes or using carpets.
“It’s a really new area of science to track where these fibres come from and how to tackle that,” says Tanya. “There is evidence of synthetic fibres from fishing gear so we’re looking at whether there could be modifications to the way, for example, nets and ropes are produced to reduce the shedding.
“There is also synthetic rubber crumb used on some sports pitches. We are continuing to horizon scan for other sources.”
The battle to save our oceans from a microplastic nightmare still has a long way to run.
More by this authorPaul Brackley