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Environmental impact of microplastics inquiry launched

18 March 2016

The Environmental Audit Committee launches an inquiry into the environmental impact of microplastics. Key issues include: the scale, sources and consequences of microplastic pollution in the ocean; strategies for dealing with the problem; and the state of our knowledge on the issue.

Microplastics come from a variety of domestic and industrial applications. They are used in some cosmetic products as exfoliation beads. Other sources include fibres from clothes, particles from tyres, and abrasive sandblasting. These microplastics can't be fully filtered out by waste water treatment, so are released into the sea. Other microplastics result from the breakup of larger plastic objects in oceans. It is estimated that there are around 250,000 tons of plastic in the oceans (Erikson et al 2014). Risks to human and animal health are currently uncertain.

Chair's comment

Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Mary Creagh MP:

"Microplastic beads are used in industrial processes and body care products. Their tiny size means they can end up flushed into the sea and enter the food chain. Parliament's green watchdog, the Environmental Audit Committee, is launching an inquiry today to investigate the scale of the problem. We will be looking at the health consequences of eating fish containing microplastics and the extent of the damage to our eco-systems. We hope to discuss potential solutions with industry, environmental and consumer groups."

In the USA recent legislation introduced a phased ban of microbeads smaller than 5mm in personal care products. Some companies in the UK and Australia have begun to voluntarily phase out microbeads in their products.

Inquiry terms of reference

The Committee invites written evidence covering some or all of the following questions:

  • How do microplastics impact on marine plants and animals? What economic consequences could result from increased microplastic pollution in the ocean?
  • How do the main sources of microplastics differ in (a) scale of output and (b) the importance of their environmental impacts? How should these relative impacts direct policy priorities?
  • What impact could microplastics have on human health? Are there knock-on impacts for Government policies, on e.g. food standards?
  • Other countries, including the USA, have taken action against microbeads in personal care products. What kind of impact would a similar ban in the UK have on the environmental situation around microplastics?
  • To what extent do larger pieces of plastic in the ocean contribute to microplastic pollution, and how can this be dealt with?
  • How comprehensive and certain is our knowledge about the scale of microplastics and their effects on the natural environment? What should research priorities be, and who should fund this research?
  • How effective is international cooperation around these issues, and what more can be done?

Deadline for submissions

Written evidence should be submitted by 5pm on Friday 15 April  2016

Further information

Image: Attributed to: microbeads-microplastic-various by MPCA Photos. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 / image cropped.
Video: Parliamentary Copyright.