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Environment

The Long-Awaited Ban on Plastic Microbeads in the UK Is Finally Here

The UK has officially banned microbeads, in one of the world’s toughest bans on the harmful pieces of plastic. 

From Tuesday, in a “landmark step,” microbeads can no longer be used in “rinse-off” cosmetic and personal care products, according to the announcement by Environment Minister Therese Coffey. 

“The world’s oceans are some of our most valuable natural assets and I am determined we act now to tackle the plastic that devastates our precious marine life,” said Coffey. 

“This ban puts us as the forefront of the international effort to crack down on plastic pollution and protect our marine environment,” she added. 

Take action: Fight Waste to Protect Our Oceans

Microbeads, which are often invisible to the naked eye, “wreak havoc” on our marine wildlife, Coffey said..

The tiny plastics could, before Tuesday’s ban, be found in everyday cosmetic products like body scrubs, face washes, toothpaste, and cleaning products. 

And a single shower could result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean, with thousands of tonnes of microbeads wash into the sea every year.

Because they are 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. 

They have also been found to be entering the diets of people. The average person who eats seafood swallows an estimated 11,000 pieces of microplastic every year, according to researchers at the University of Ghent. 

Read more: Why You Should Probably Never Use Microbead Soaps Again

A Greenpeace report also found that some species of young fish had begun to prefer plastic to their natural food source, thanks to the increasing amount of plastics in the ocean. There are some 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s seas, according to comprehensive research published in the journal PLOS One

Scientists from the US, France, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand found that, collectively, the plastic in the oceans weighs nearly 269,000 tonnes, with the majority being microplastics measuring less than 5mm.

“Now we have reached this important milestone,” continued Coffey, “we will explore how we can build on our world-leading ban and tackle other forms of plastic waste.” 

The latest effort stands alongside the success of the 2015 introduction of the plastic bag charge — which has resulted in 9 billion fewer plastic bags in circulation

Read more: Glitter Is Banned From This Nursery For What Is Actually a Great Reason

Greenpeace UK said it welcomed the “great news,” which it described as a “positive sign of Britain’s global leadership on ocean plastics.”

Other countries around the world have passed or are in the process of passing bans on microbeads, including the US and Canada. 

However, it’s not quite a complete ban in the UK, with “leave-on” products like sunscreen and makeup still allowed to contain microbeads.

That’s due to resistance from the cosmetic industry which said it would need to reformulate 90% of products, which would be “difficult” and “expensive,” according to the Independent

Read more: Sir David Attenborough's 'Blue Planet II' Team Pick Up Every Bit of Litter They Find in the Ocean

Shops will still be able to sell products containing microbeads that were produced before Tuesday, with the ban applying to manufacturers rather than shops. 

The Department for Environment has said that a ban on the sale of products containing microbeads will follow in July.

There are still plenty of natural alternatives to microbeads to choose from that won’t harm the environment, such as scrubs including coffee grounds, sugar, or salt granules. 

The intention to ban microbeads in the UK was first announced in September 2016 , and had been pledged to come into force in 2017. 

Read more: Turns Out There's Not Just 1 Great Oceanic Garbage Patch — There Are 5

The decision came after MPs called for urgent action on the harmful microplastics polluting the world’s oceans, and celebrities like Ellie Goulding and Dougie Poynter joined the effort.

“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,” said Andrea Leadsom, when the ban was first announced. 

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN Global Goals, including for life under water. You can join us by taking action to protect our oceans here .