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.

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.

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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.

Carlos Rodriguez V. - Pallid Goby
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Nanoplastics cause brain damage and behavioural abnormalities in fish

For the first time, scientists at Lund University in Sweden have proven that nanoplastics enter the brains of fish through the food chain and that this leads to abnormal behaviour. The research findings were published in the authoritative journal, Nature, on 13 September.

For the research, the scientists recreated two food chains for two months. One contained no nanoplastics while the other contained nanoplastics that were invisible to the naked eye. In the experiment, algae and water fleas were exposed to polystyrene particles of 53 and 180 nanometers. The water fleas were then fed to freshwater fish.

The fish that were exposed to the 53 nm plastics ate more slowly and travelled further to reach their food than the group that were exposed to the 180 nm. The 180 nm group exhibited hyperactive behaviour. The researchers believe that the abnormal behaviour was caused by an accumulation of nanoplastics in the fishes’ brains.

Furthermore, the research showed that all the fish in the experiment had nanoplastics in their brains. In contrast, the brains of animals in a control group did not contain plastic particles. The scientists believe that an accumulation of nanoplastics in the brains can occur in nature. While animals are constantly exposed to low concentrations of nanoplastics, they may not live long enough for the plastic particles that slowly accumulate in their bodies to cause damage. The carp used in the research can live to over 10 years.

The researchers concluded that the nanoplastics in algae are eaten by water fleas, which in turn are eaten by fish. This is how the plastic particles move through the food chain. Humans are at the top of the food chain and the question is to what extent plastic particles enter human bodies and accumulate there.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “What we already feared is confirmed in this study – nanoplastics go up through the food chain and cause abnormal behaviour in animals. Much more research is needed, and governments must take measures to stop nanoplastic pollution to protect human and animal health.”

microplastics in binnenwateren

UNESCO to publish PSF report on microplastics in inland waterways

Stockholm, 29 August 2016 – New forms of pollution are affecting the quality of freshwater worldwide. One of the causes, microplastics, still receives little attention. UNESCO considers microplastics in inland waterways to be a growing problem with huge harmful consequences. A report compiled by the Plastic Soup Foundation and commissioned by UNESCO was presented on camera in Stockholm during the World Water Week. The case study is part of the UNESCO Project on Emerging Pollutants in Water and Wastewater. Watch the program here.

Microplastics, smaller than 5 mm, are found everywhere in inland waterways. The report describes the main sources and proposes possible solutions. One major objective is to move the problem of microplastics up the political agenda worldwide. In principle, national governments are responsible for water quality.

Author of the report, Michiel Roscam Abbing, says “Much more attention is being paid to plastic pollution in the oceans than in the rivers and lakes, but the evidence does not justify this. Expectations are that our use of plastic and in particular the far-reaching fragmentation of large pieces of plastic will hugely increase the quantity of microplastics in the water. The smaller the pieces, the greater the chance they will enter the food chain and penetrate ecosystems. And once they get into the water they can no longer be removed.” The study is expected to be published within a few months.

Internationally, Sweden plays a key role when it comes to improving water quality. The World Water Week is organized every year by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). The UNESCO research program into “Emerging Pollutants” is financed by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). Earlier this year the Swedish environment minister called for a ban on microplastics in cosmetics.

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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.

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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.

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Fish ingest less microplastics than assumed

Recently, an Argentinian study was published into microplastics in coastal freshwater fish captured at the Rio de la Plata. Eighty-seven fish belonging to eleven different species were studied. Microplastics were found in all fish. Plastic microfibers represented 96% of the microplastics.

However, a other research from Wageningen shows an entirely different result. Four hundred North Sea fish belonging to four different species were studied on the presence of microplastics (bigger than 20 μm). Just two microplastics were found in one fish, a sprat. How can we explain the vast difference between these two studies?

The researchers from Wageningen found it suspicious that earlier researches had reported relatively large amounts of microplastics in fish. They suspected contamination; pollution of the fish by the researchers of the earlier studies, such as fibres from clothing worn during the investigation or the presence of plastic particles in the air. That is why this time the research was designed in such a way that contamination could be eliminated.

Their conclusion: fish possibly ingest less microplastics than is generally thought.

microplastics ban on microbeads verbod op microbeads
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UK: ban on microbeads in cosmetics

On 21 July, the British government announced a ban on microbeads in cosmetics. The ban on production will take effect on 1 January 2018, and the ban on sales on 30 June 2018. This ruling follows a consultation round in which stakeholders and the public shared their views.

British environmental organizations, which have been campaigning for the ban for months, are celebrating the announcement as a major step forward. However, in a joint statement they point to a number of shortcomings. One criticism is that the British government has not as yet issued a definition of plastic microbeads. This makes it unclear whether the ban covers all non-soluble plastic particles. Another criticism is that the ban is limited to rinse-off products and does not cover other products than cosmetics, like detergents.

The ban is seen as the most far reaching ban in the world to date as it does not allow biodegradable plastics as a fit alternative. This is the case in the American Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015. What is also important is that the British Ministry of the Environment, DEFRA, and the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee will evaluate the microplastics that do not fall directly under the ban. During the consultation round, the British cosmetics industry indicated that a total ban will require the reformulation of thousands of products.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “We celebrate the announcement of the ban as an important victory of the international Beat the Microbead campaign. What is important is that a legal nationwide ban has been announced and that that ban may be extended to other cosmetics in the future. We expect the European Union to follow Britain’s example to phase out plastic particles through a legal ban. The initiative schould certainly not be left to the industry itself”