The UK government has pledged to ban microbeads used in cosmetic and "personal care" products by 2017.
Announced on Saturday 3 September, the decision follows an appeal from British MPs calling for urgent action on the harmful microplastics polluting the world’s oceans.
A petition calling for the ban received more than 357,000 signatures, highlighting a swell of popular support against microbeads.
Despite their miniature size, microbeads are a major threat to the environment.
Often invisible to the naked eye, the tiny plastics are found in everyday cosmetic products like body scrubs, face washes, toothpaste and cleaning products. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean.
Too small to be filtered out by sewage systems, microbeads end up in the oceans where they can be mistaken for food and eaten by marine life, altering the food chain with dangerous consequences. A recent Greenpeace report has shown evidence that some species of young fish have begun to prefer plastic to their natural food source.
Andrea Leadsom, the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has said: "Adding plastic to products like face washes and body scrubs is wholly unnecessary when harmless alternatives can be used.
"Most people would be dismayed to know the face scrub or toothpaste they use was causing irreversible damage to the environment, with billions of indigestible plastic pieces poisoning sea creatures."
Environmental groups have welcomed the move, although they argue that banning microbeads in cosmetics is just one step in the fight to protect the oceans from all kinds of plastic.
“It’s a credit to Theresa May’s government that they’ve listened to concerns from the public, scientists, and MPs and taken a first step towards banning microbeads,” said the Greeanpeace's oceans campaigner Louise Edge, quoted in The Guardian. “But marine life doesn’t distinguish between plastic from a face wash and plastic from a washing detergent, so it makes no sense for this ban to be limited to some products and not others, as is currently proposed.” The movement therefore calls for a wider ban on all plastic in any household product that can be washed down the drain.
The UK’s decision follows the US and Canada, who have both pledged to ban microbeads by 2017. Building on the success of the 5p bag charge, which has already reduced the use of plastic bags in Britain by 85%, the ban on microbeads is another positive step towards a cleaner planet — making sure having a shower does not have to be an act of pollution.