Maggie Jones on the UK’s need to play a bigger part in cleaning up the world’s oceans
Today in the House of Lords, the government will take a small step in tackling ocean plastic pollution by banning microbeads in personal care products. An overdue but welcome move on which Labour has campaigned for several years.
A significant move too, as plastic microbeads are an unnecessary but extensive part of the cosmetics industry with an estimated 100,000 microbeads washed down the sink with each application. From there they can easily pass through water filtration systems into rivers and oceans where they are consumed by birds and marine creatures who mistake them for fish eggs. Then it is just one small step to the food chain, through the larger fish consumed by humans.
While the full human health impacts are still being assessed, the damaging effect on marine life is well known. Urgent action was therefore imperative. Labour has worked with Greenpeace and other NGO’s to raise awareness of the damage being caused. Meanwhile, the wonderful work of David Attenborough and the Blue Planet series has hardened public attitudes, with 85% of people now wanting action to stop plastic waste entering our oceans.
In this wider challenge, a ban on microbeads may only play a small part. But it is still important, as once the microbeads enter the oceans they cannot be cleaned up and take up to 700 years to disintegrate. There is no justification therefore, for adding to the pollution.
A number of cosmetic companies have already recognised the need to act, voluntarily removing microbeads from their products. The ban being announced today however, will make it illegal to produce or sell microbeads in all rinse off products in the UK – creating a level playing field for business. At the same time, research is developing new natural alternatives, including ground almonds and apricot kernels.
Despite these developments, challenges remain.
First, the legislation being debated in the Lords today does not cover off products that remain in the skin. It has also been suggested that microbeads in industrial cleaning products far outnumber those used in personal care. So there is an urgent need to extend the use of natural alternatives and deliver a complete ban.
Second, the legislation assumes that local authorities, and specifically Trading Standard Officers, will enforce the ban. Difficult, when such council services are starved of cash and the staff tasked with doing so will need training and guidance on implementing the new rules – support that may not be forthcoming. And their task will be made harder by the fact that cosmetic product labelling fails to specify whether or not a product contains microbeads. That will necessitate separate research and analysis being carried out on suspect items. So a further cost.
Third, and finally, plastics in our oceans obviously don’t respect national borders. A ban on microbeads in the UK may be ground breaking but it will have a marginal effect unless other countries follow suit. So there is a need to work both within the EU and on a transnational basis to deliver a global shift in policy. We all have a role to play in making this happen and Labour will remain at the forefront of the campaign.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 18th December 2017