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The worldwide revolt against plastic beats the industry

Amsterdam, 27 November 2018 The Guardian published a well researched and extensive long read, which analyzes the current worldwide revolt against plastic. In the last few years, people realised that the plastic soup crisis is one of the larger environmental problems of our day, which has to be solved. According to the writer, this realisation occurred after the public outrage of the use of microbeads in cosmetics; oddly enough, he does not refer to the success of the 2012 campaign Beat the Microbead, started by the Plastic Soup Foundation. Consumers didn’t want be complicit in the plastic soup crisis, through a simple act such as washing your hair, just because producers replaced the natural ingredients in shampoos and shrubs by the much cheaper microplastics.

What is the core problem?

For several decades, an alliance of several different, plastic related industries has countered all problems regarding plastic waste with a strategy primarily based on the continued production and increased sales of plastics. According to the Guardian article this is a two-part strategy.

  • The consumer is responsible for the plastic waste and not the plastic producers, is the first part of the strategy. And producers, the interested parties, finance organisations that promote this message. In the United States, this organisation is called Keep America Beautiful and the Dutch sister organisation is called Nederland Schoon.
  • The second part of the strategy is the promotion of the recycling of plastic household waste. This is based on the suggestion that plastic can easily be recycled and that this is a solution for the environmental problems. However, the reality demonstrates that only a very small percentage of plastics can be recycled and the products made of recycled plastic are of inferior quality. Furthermore, not all plastics are separately collected.

But the public recognizes the simplistic ideas behind this strategy and does not accept it anymore, and what is more the public has also convinced their governments. This has finally resulted in a ban on certain plastics products and governments will increasingly place the responsibility of the plastic waste back on the shoulders of the plastic producers.

The author points out a paradox in his article: while we are aware of the seriousness of the problem, we also realize the difficulty and complexity in solving plastic soup crisis. The important players in the plastic industry, for instance, are globally organized and thus difficult to regulate. However, never before has there been such a momentum to take care of the plastic soup crisis.


Also read: Unprecedented heavy lobby against European Commission Proposals


The European Parliament wants to ban microplastics in cosmetics

Amsterdam, 27 September 2018 – Breaking news: the European Parliament has embraced the environment commission’s report entitled Turning plastic wastelands into fields of gold, by a huge majority. The report, compiled by the European Parliamentarian Mark Demesmaeker, supports the Plastic Strategy, Europe’s strategy to address the plastic crisis and to stimulate circularity. The European Parliament accepted the report with 579 votes for, 15 against and 25 abstentions.

The report advocates a ban on microplastics in cosmetics. “The rapporteur believes that the most cost-efficient option is to tackle the use of micro-plastics at source. He therefore calls for a ban on micro-plastics which are intentionally added to products, such as for cosmetics and cleaning products, and for which viable alternatives are available. The recent introduction of legislation that bans the use of plastic micro-beads in rinse-off cosmetic products in some Member States, for example the United Kingdom, prove that this is possible.”

The report also cites the Mermaids Life+ project (and, as a partner in Mermaids, the Plastic Soup Foundation’s special site). Demesmaeker believes that the research has generated significant information and wants the European Commission to set legal minimum requirements for products to avoid the spread of microplastics. Apart from textiles, this should also apply to car tyres, paint and cigarette filters.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation said that “Our efforts over the years to deal with microplastics at source is echoed in this report. Given the overwhelming support of the European Parliament for the report, the European Commission must now come with proposals for legislation. We expect a general European ban on all microplastics in all cosmetics and legal requirements to drastically limit the loss of fibres in synthetic clothing.”

Microplastics are subject to a wide debate and there are significant concerns that the tiny fragments can end up in the food chain but little is still known about the impact on human health.


Swiss Alps: microplastics everywhere

Amsterdam, 4 May 2018 – By now it is almost too obvious to state that all across the world plastic is found in the environment. That it is actually true has been shown by a new Swiss study. Even in the most remote nature reserves high up in the mountains microplastics are being discovered and far more than researchers had expected. Moreover, The Guardian, who reports on the research, points out that Switzerland is the best-performing European country when it comes to collecting plastic waste. All the plastic is collected and then recycled or burned. Nevertheless, microplastics are found all around.

The research analyzed soil samples from 29 river catchment areas. The researchers found microplastics in 90% of the samples. There was a clear connection between high concentrations of microplastics and the presence of larger pieces of plastic, the mesoplastics. The microplastics in this instance seem to originate from plastic waste through fragmentation. A connection to population density was also shown; the higher the number of people in an area, the higher the concentration of microplastics.

Especially striking was the presence of microplastics in the remote national reserves, which can only be reached on foot. These mostly concerned very tiny plastic particles (<500 μm diameter). The researchers state that this is due to distribution through wind.

The research appeared in Environmental Science and Technology.

Also read: Poor air quality caused by microplastics

Plastic microdeeltjes zijn vaak terug te vinden in cosmetica voor dagelijks gebruik.
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Ban on microbeads in UK, Italy and New Zealand

Amsterdam, 23 December 2017 – The United Kingdom, Italy and New Zealand plan to ban plastic scrub particles in personal care products. Although these countries are taking a major step, this legislation does not mean no more plastic will enter the sea through the use of personal care products.

In London the government adopted a proposal by a special parliamentary commission to ban the production of these personal care products as of 1 January 2018 and their sale as of July 2018. In the parlementary debate which preceded the decision, references were made to the Beat the Microbead campaign’s Position Paper which among other things calls for a broader ban on microplastics.

The Italian parliament adopted a proposal on 19 December to ban microbeads scrub particles in cosmetics as of 2020. In addition, Italy will be the first country to ban plastic cotton buds as of 2019.

In early December, the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, confirmed her country will ban microbeads as of May 2018, as announced by the previous government. New Zealand’s retailers are already removing these polluting products from their shelves and adapting formulas in their own brands.

In each of these pieces of legislation the ban only affects the plastic particles with a scrub function. However, these products contain other plastics which are not covered by the legislation, such as glitter. In Great Britain, glitter in scrubs is covered by the new legislation, while glitter in make-up or shampoo is not. Most glitter comprises of a combination of aluminum and PET. When used, they pollute water with microplastics just as much as the scrub particles do. According to The Independent, British scientists recently called for a ban on glitter.


Beat the Microbead-coalition publishes new position paper

Jeroen Dagevos at the “Microplastics: Enjoy your meal” press conference

Jeroen Dagevos at the “Microplastics: Enjoy your meal” press conference.


Amsterdam, October 26 2017 – Plastic Soup Foundation published a new position papaer on microplastics in cosmetics on behalf of the Beat the Microbead-coalition. The aim is to realise a European ban on all microplastics in cosmetics which is not limited to microbeads.

Download the position paper ‘Stop pollution of plastic from cosmetics through an EU-wide ban’ here.

For more information about microbeads and microplastics, please refer to our file.

waterzuivering Every day 112.5 million microbeads pass through Ljubljana’s water purification plants
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The international cosmetics industry and plastic soup

Amsterdam, 25 October 2017 – Last June the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), which represents the cosmetics industry worldwide, brought out a bizarre press release stating that they take their responsibility seriously and are doing their utmost to tackle plastic pollution in the oceans, pointing to the voluntary phasing out of plastic microbeads in scrub products. However, the organization then went on to protest against the United Nations Clean Seas-campaign, which is urging the cosmetics industry to stop adding microplastics to their products.

The press release also sets out the cosmetic industry’s reasons for their protest, for instance a number of studies by independent scientists shows that other industries play a much bigger role than the cosmetics industry in causing plastic soup. The press release claims that the industry is only responsible for “the tiniest fraction of plastic pollution in aquatic environments” and quotes a Danish study which found that 99% of the microbeads are removed by water purification plants. In its conclusion the PCPC says they sincerely hope that the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) will base their Clean Seas-campaign on science and seek real solutions (rather than solely targeting the cosmetics industry).

When you read these kind of press releases, you need to ask yourself what is not being said. In order to rid cosmetic products of microplastics (and this applies to many more products than the scrubs mentioned above) some cosmetic firms would be forced to make adjustments to more than 90% of their products, which is expensive and takes time. The British trade association Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) used this argument recently in their protest against a proposed British ban on microplastics in cosmetics. In other words, the industry is not at all willing to remove all microplastics from personal care products and replace them with alternatives because it would be an extremely expensive exercise.

Another issue the PCPC omitted from its press release is that the Danish study it quotes also states sewage sludge from water purification plants is subsequently distributed on agricultural land as fertilizer. Norwegian scientist Luca Nizzetto has conducted research into this and found that microplastics from the sludge seep into the soil. He estimates this to be between 110,000 and 730,000 tons of microplastics worldwide, a proportion of which runs off into surface water. So, eventually all those plastic particles end up in the environment after all, thanks to the cosmetics industry.

The PCPC’s position and their attack on the UNEP are extremely regrettable. Instead of conceding guilt and removing microplastics from their personal care products, they are trying to downplay the problem by misrepresenting the facts. Their true objective is simply to continue selling personal care products containing microplastics for as long as possible.

waterzuivering Every day 112.5 million microbeads pass through Ljubljana’s water purification plants
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Every day 112.5 million microbeads pass through Ljubljana’s water purification plants

The cosmetics industry fears a worldwide ban on plastic microbeads in scrubs and on all other microplastics. The sector has rallied its defences and has two main lines of defence. One, water purification plants could potentially collect 99% of all plastics, so what’s the problem? Two, the legislation is not based on scientific evidence.

Earlier this year, referring to a Danish study, the mouthpiece of the world-wide cosmetics industry, the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), declared that 99% of microplastics are caught by water purification plants. In its statement, the PCPC  does not communicate that the same study also informs the reader that the sewage sludge – polluted with the caught microplastics – is then spread on agricultural land as fertiliser. This means that all those plastic particles simply enter the environment again.

Imagine that indeed, 1% of the microbeads enter the surface water through effluent. Is this a negligible amount as the PCPC suggests? In 2015, British scientists at the University of Plymouth calculated how many microplastics an average daily portion of scrub contains. In 5 millilitres of scrub, they found between 4,595 and 94,500 microplastics. So consumers contribute between 45 and 945 microbeads to the plastic soup every time they take a shower. This is excluding the other 99%.

A study was recently published in the scientific journal Chemosphere by the University of Ljubljana. This study points to a completely different percentage. The scientists calculated the number of microplastics originating in personal care products that enter Slovenia’s surface water through the water purification plants of Ljubljana. Laboratory experiments show that on average, not 99% but 52% of the microbeads ends up in the sewerage sludge. Assuming an average use of 15.2 mg per person in Ljubljana, this means that every day 112.5 million microbeads enter the Slovenian surface water. This equates to a concentration of 21 particles per cubic metre.

The cosmetic industry’s line of defence is remarkably weak. It is waging a war behind the lines in which it is rapidly losing the trust of governments and the public.

cosmetica industrie cosmetics companies
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How British cosmetics companies try to wriggle out of the microbead ban

Amsterdam, 11 October 2017 – The United Kingdom, officially still a member of the European Union, notified the European Commission about its proposal to ban plastic microbeads in cosmetics and toiletries. The British government is banning the use of microbeads in cosmetics and toiletries on 1 January 2018 and the sale of these products on 1 July 2018 on the grounds that they endanger sea life. The Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) responded to this notification on 15 September. With more than 170 members, this trade association represents the British cosmetics industry.

This ruling is very costly, says the CTPA, as more than 90% of the skincare products will have to be changed. In making this claim, the industry is admitting that plastic particles are included in more than 90% of cosmetics and toiletries.

The British government defines microbeads as an insoluble plastic particle less than 5 mm in size. The CTPA is making the case for limiting this definition to microbeads in scrub products, in parallel with the American ban of 2015. This will not hurt the industry as most of the cosmetic companies in the United Kingdom have already removed the actual scrub plastic particles.

The crux of the UK ban is that the other microplastics will be banned as well under the given definition. Cosmetic producers use microplastics that have a range of functions other than only scrubbing. These tiny plastic particles, like the microbeads, also flow down the bathroom drains and equally pollute the sea. The CTPA asserts that it has not been proven that these other types of microplastics – the ones that are still used in 90% of products like lipstick and shampoo – are hazardous for the marine environment.

When the Beat the Microbead campaign was launched in 2012, the industry responded with exactly the same argument – there is no evidence that plastic microbeads are hazardous for the marine environment. The conservative response of the CTPA brings us back to square one.

In the meantime, scientific evidence is piling up. Plastic particles that are captured by water purification plants end up in the sludge that is used as fertiliser on the land. They thus directly enter the environment and the water. Plastic particles find their way up the food chain in all sorts of ways. Recently, scientists at the Swedish Lund University published an article in Nature showing that nanoplastics enter the brains of fish through the food chain and cause aberrant behaviour. Plastic nano particles fall under the definition of microplastics and are used in some personal care and cosmetic products.

Nobody asked for polluting microplastics to be used in cosmetics and toiletries. The only ones that have done this and that have benefitted from it hugely, are the cosmetics companies themselves. These companies are now crying crocodile tears through the CTPA because of the costs associated with its removal.

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Microbeads hinder the growth of duckweed

Microplastics can have a negative effect on floating aquatic plants like duckweed and hinder their growth. This is the conclusion of scientists at the University of Ljubljana. Their findings recently appeared in the scientific journal, Environmental Pollution. Up to now, research has mostly been limited to the effects of microplastics on aquatic organisms such as animals and algae. This is the first time that it has been demonstrated that microplastics can have negative effects on plants.

Polyethylene is the most common plastic found in rivers. Its low density causes it to float and thus to easily come into contact with the floating duckweed, an important plant for fresh water ecosystems. In the laboratory, researchers tested the effects of exposure to polyethylene micro particles (between 0.03 mm and 0.6 mm in size) for seven days on duckweed. They used the microbeads of two easily available, locally purchased body scrubs.

A microplastic attached to one of the studied duckweed roots. Picture: Urban Kunej, Ljubljana University.

The plastic particles appear not to affect the growth of the leaves nor the number of roots. However, they have a clear negative effect on the length of the root. The plastic appears to attach to the surface of the roots, thereby hindering their growth. The microplastics in one of the scrubs tested had rough edges and those in the other scrub, smooth surfaces. The rough, irregular shaped microbeads also appeared to damage the cell membranes and to negatively affect the health of the roots’ cells. The smooth surfaced particles did not appear to do this.

Higher concentrations of microbeads did not have an increased adverse effect on the root system and thus microbeads impact can be rather linked to absolute presence of microbeads above a certain level. This also demonstrates that the damage is rather mechanical and not chemical. The researchers suggest that both types of microbeads – rough and smooth – negatively affect the roots and that the rough surface of the microbeads could be an important factor in the damage observed to the root cells.

schadelijk hazardous
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British cosmetics industry: Plastic liquids are not hazardous

After holding a consultation round, the British Government recently announced a ban on microbeads in personal care products to take effect on 1 January 2018. The director of Britain’s Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA), Dr Chris Flower, responded to this announcement by stating that each ban should be based on scientific knowledge. In the case of microbeads it has been proven to be detrimental to the marine environment and the CTPA is happy that the ban is limited to scrubs. It claims that other plastic ingredients in personal care products do not contribute to marine pollution.

This means that even after the ban takes effect and products containing plastic microbeads are removed from the market, consumers will still see ‘polyethylene’ and countless other plastics on labels. The CTPA admits that this is confusing for consumers, but it states that polyethylene does not automatically mean that the product contains microbeads. It goes on to say that there is a difference between the hard plastic particles and other types of plastics in personal care products. These have very different qualities and “do not pose any dangers to the environment”. For example, these comprise liquids that allow products to be spread smoothly on the skin in so-called leave-on cosmetics such as foundation and sun cream. These, the CTPA states, are not relevant in the current debate about the effects of plastic microbeads on the environment. In further explanation about the issue, the CTPA website states “There is no evidence linking ingredients in leave-on cosmetic products to plastic litter in the marine environment”.

The Beat the Microbead coalition seriously doubts this statement. It asks the cosmetics industry, that justifiably places great importance on scientific substantiation, to prove that the plastics that do not fall under the ban, do indeed pose no threat to the environment and do not contribute to the plastic pollution of our waters. To date, there is no evidence of this and consumers simply have to believe the cosmetics industry. Or not.

The international Beat the Microbead coalition advocates for 100% plastic free personal care products. Consumers need complete clarity on this issue and should not be confused by the list of ingredients on labels. If microplastics are used, in whatever form, it must be proven beyond a doubt that they are not harmful to the environment.

Read more about this subject in our Microbeads & microplastics file.