Microplastic threat: Vast floating carpet of waste particles damaging to our environment and us

Coastwatch volunteers Roslyn Nicholson and Karin Dubsky with some automotive debris which washed up on the beach. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

Plastic has become a huge problem for our oceans, taking many decades to break down, and entering the food chain with often deadly results for the birds, fish and other creatures that end up ingesting it, writes Caroline O’Doherty

A walk along the rain-soaked beach reveals a treasure trove of modern archaeology.

Wind and waves have cut chunks out of the cliff, exposing a rich array of artefacts from domestic and commercial life.

This area near Bray, Co Wicklow, was once the town dump and now, sliced like layer cake by the elements, it is possible to trace the ingredients of the decades through the different bands of earth and rubbish, each with their own subtly distinctive composition and colour.

Pieces of rusted metal protrude — a bicycle frame, a mechanical disc and what looks to be the grille from the front of a car. Cups, plates and a teapot appear, surrounded by endless bottles warped by the heat of the fires that smouldered regularly in the rubbish.

Tin cans, aerosols, nylon stockings and asbestos roof tiles all jut out from the soil along with many unidentifiable objects, crushed, burned and degraded beyond recognition.

Volunteers from the environmental group, Coastwatch, found blue asbestos there too — one of the most dangerous types — despite years of insistence by officials that inspections had revealed no hazardous materials and that there was no risk to the environment.

It has since been removed, or at least what was visible of it, but asbestos roof tiles are embedded in the soil and lying on the sand below.

But what’s most striking among this monument to the throwaway lifestyle is the plastic. A perfectly intact carrier bag from the H Williams supermarket chain flaps in the breeze, its logo and slogan ‘High Standards, Low Prices’ crystal clear on the front. H Williams closed in 1987.

That was also the year that saw manufacturing cease at Albatros Fertilisers which supplied the mix of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium that once filled the plastic sack sticking out from a fresh fall of cliff face.

The sack tells us the contents were made for the Irish Sugar Company, a name that vanished from the corporate landscape 26 years ago.

A bag that once contained dried peas carries cooking instructions for boiling in a pot with imperial measurements of water. There is no mention of a microwave option and no sign of the metric measures that were introduced in the 1970s.

Similarly, a Parozone bottle is a pre-metric 12 fluid oz while a small tub that once held a long-life individual serving of Sunkist orange juice drunk harks back to a time before Tetra Pak, fridges and the notion of freshly squeezed.

Best — or worst — of all, there’s a black plastic bag of the sort small quantities of coal used to be sold in. It bears the information: ‘Manufactured in Ireland by CB Paper Sacks Ltd, Distributed by Irish Merchants Ltd’ and give a six-digit Dublin phone number.

Dublin has not had six-digit phone numbers since the 1980s, but the bag is older that that. According to the Companies Registration Office, CB Paper Sacks ceased using that name in 1956.

It is testament to the enduring power of plastic that these examples have survived in such good condition for so long.

And it is a sobering reminder that not only are we having to deal with the unwanted legacy of 50 years devotion to plastic, but we are currently, enthusiastically and to a greater scale than ever before, continuing to build on that legacy for the future.

Coastwatch founder, Karin Dubsky, looks around the scene just north of Bray and declares herself “driven scatty”. “Have we learned anything?” she wonders.

Twice a day at high tide, and more dramatically during stormy weather, the waves scrub away at the cliff face, undermining the soil and stones encasing the rubbish so that eventually they crumble and the various objects fall to the sand below.

Swept out to sea, some of the plastic items may trap small creatures or get swallowed by larger ones who will either choke on them or die of starvation as their stomachs clog up.

But most will get shredded by rocks and abrasive sands so that tiny fragments will begin to break off and microplastic is born.

Of all the threats the seas have faced — untreated sewage, oil spills, chemical run-off from farmland, leachate from dumps, cargo loss from container ships, radioactive leaks — plastic is proving the most challenging.

The sheer amount of it, Its ubiquity and durability make it almost impossible to contain what’s already in the water, never mind the fresh supplies that are adding to it every day.

The problem is most graphically illustrated by what has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an enormous collection of rubbish floating in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre where currents from Asia meet currents from America and the water swirls slowly round and round, endlessly stirring a plastic soup.

It was discovered, or at least first chronicled, by Charles Moore, a US marine scientist sailing home from Hawaii to California from a yacht race 20 years ago.

The gyre wasn’t a commonly used route for sailors because of the lack of reliable winds but Moore was in no hurry and a pristine oceanscape beckoned. Or so he thought.

His description of sailing for days through the soup, and his subsequent work on testing the pollution levels and damage to aquatic life, stayed largely within the realm of scientists for years.

But his discovery has now earned its place in the public consciousness as a symbol of environmental destruction as iconic as the stranded polar bear on the rapidly melting glacier. Just how big it is has not been conclusively determined although there is some consensus that twice the size of Texas is probably on the conservative side of accurate.

And it’s not the only one — there are growing garbage patches in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and in the North Sea.

Tests on the North Pacific site revealed that the mass of floating rubbish is 80% plastic. Some of it is identifiable as plastic bottles, bottle lids, bags and other containers and wrapping, but much of it is indeterminable.

That’s the microplastic — a vast floating carpet woven from innumerable minuscule fragments of plastic broken or torn up over years at sea and degraded by the sun but still plastic in content and toxicity.

In fact, they are even more toxic than when in their original form because they absorb other pollutants and are often colonised by bacteria so they carry nasties in far great concentrations. Poisoned pellets are how some environmentalists have described them.

Fish eat them and seabirds and sea mammals eat the fish. Dead specimens are often found to have stomachs full of little else but tiny plastic pieces.

But humans eat the fish too and the effect here is harder to quantify. It’s not yet clear if the accidental consumption of microscopic pieces of plastic causes much harm in itself or if only the toxins and bacteria pose a danger.

Environmental groups have been using some provocative questions to raise awareness. ‘Are you eating your own fleece?’ is one — a reference to the discovery that fleeces, generally made from recycled plastic, shred large amounts of microfibres in the washing machine, much of which goes into the water system.

Even if it was to be proven that there was little likely harm to health, the idea that you could be ingesting bits of your clothing is unsettling to say the least.

Karin Dubsky believes the risks are far greater than that. As she scours the items shed from the old Bray dump, she says she fears the particular dangers of older plastics.

“What’s interesting is the period when this was put down and that is the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s. That is the time when PVC was still in wide use in everyday items,” she says.

PVC has since been banned for use in children’s toys in Europe and various additives previously used it its production are no longer allowed, but even the newer, greener version of PVC is under scrutiny and environmentalists remain unconvinced that it is any better than the original.

"Carcinogenic, very bad news,” says Dubsky, gathering samples for testing. “We do not know how much PVC, or dioxin from burning it is  in this landfill. We don’t want that in the sea."

The old Bray dump is not typical of the way plastic gets into the sea in this country but it is a stark example of why sticking plastic — and heads —in the ground doesn’t make it go away.

Seeing how well-preserved the newly unearthed plastic bags are after 30 or 40 years, it is not hard to accept the scientific consensus that they will survive for 500 years before decomposing. It is believed that plastic bottles and containers will take even longer.

The dump is also an illustration of how unnecessarily complicated the response to an environmental hazard can be.

Wicklow local authorities owned it and operated the dump until it closed — officially in the late 1960s but unofficial dumping is known to have continued for at least another decade — but it was then sold to the adjacent Woodbrook Golf Club and meanwhile a boundary change means it is now within the now within the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council area.

For more than 10 years all involved have known about the problems at the site and the latest of several reports commissioned into it was published earlier this year with still no agreement on what to do about it. All the mitigation and remediation options on offer cost money and no one seems willing to find it in their budget.

At Government level, it is the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government that has responsibility for the foreshore and littering, but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible for fisheries while the National Parks and Wildlife Service — which is answerable to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs — looks after marine animals.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a role too — but it comes under the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment.

Karine Dubsky wishes the structures could be simplified.

“We have nine and half times more sea than land. I was hoping that in the Cabinet reshuffle they might create a Department of the Marine again so that you don’t have to knock on so many doors to get action.”

But she says it’s not all down to Government failures. Recycling rates may have improved dramatically over the past 10 years but the amount of plastic packaging used has also risen, and is continuing to do so — at a rate of 4% a year in Western European, according to Repak.

“We need to stop making more plastic because we are just making more problems. Society, consumers, all of us, have created this situation. We have no business donating this to the sea.”

2020 target on microplastic threat

Microbeads are a threat to the environment. Caroline O’Doherty looks at plans to tackle the issue

Working together on the BIM Fishing for Litter programme in Kinsale, one of seven ports nationwide to participate in the effective initiative, are Catherine Barrett, Fisheries Development Officer, Julian Renault, Kinsale Harbour Master, and Billy Lynch, MFV Oden. Picture: John Allen
Working together on the BIM Fishing for Litter programme in Kinsale, one of seven ports nationwide to participate in the effective initiative, are Catherine Barrett, Fisheries Development Officer, Julian Renault, Kinsale Harbour Master, and Billy Lynch, MFV Oden. Picture: John Allen

THE creation of microplastic is, for the most part, unintended but there is one variety that is deliberately produced.

Microbeads are tiny plastic spheres manufactured for a wide range of industrial uses such as in paints and varnishes, as lighting diffusers, for instrument calibration and for slow-release drug delivery.

But their best-known use from a consumer perspective is in toiletries and cosmetics. For much of the late 1990s and 2000s, no self-respecting facial scrub, exfoliant or brightening toothpaste would be seen on a supermarket shelf without added microbeads to tackle dirt, stains and impurities.

Now cosmetics companies are vying with each other to be next to announce they will take microbeads out of their products — although some have given themselves generous phase-out deadlines and get-out clauses.

Previously cosmetic microbeads were made from natural ingredients such as seeds, fruit stones and husks but it was hard to get them into uniform shape and size and they didn’t have the smooth exterior of plastic so they could be uncomfortably rough. Some critics have also claimed they were just too effective so that consumers only needed to use them occasionally instead of daily which producers’ pockets preferred.

Either way, plastics seemed the solution although, somewhat bizarrely, no-one thought about what would happen when these microscopic balls were washed down the plughole. It wasn’t until scientists started to spot accumulations of the beads in marine habitats and animals in the mid-2000s that the answer to the question no-one asked became clear.

The question now is what to do about them. In the United States, a ban on the production of cosmetics and toiletries containing microbeads is due to come into effect next month, followed next year by a ban on the sale of any remaining products still on the shelves and the following year by a ban on over-the-counter drugs which also contain them.

A number of individual states are already a step ahead of that and have had bans of varying reach since 2015, and Canada is also gearing up to follow suit.

Across Europe, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Austria, France, Italy and the UK have all made pledges or moves to ban the beads while New Zealand and Australia are also considering voluntary or mandatory phase-outs. Environmentalists say the moves are too limited.

The Government’s response here has been less than clear despite strong words by Simon Coveney, the minister with responsibility for the area up to his change of job last week. When the Green Party introduced a bill last year to ban microbeads in personal care products, Mr Coveney swiftly killed it, saying it was flawed and disproportionate and could place Ireland in breach of EU free trade rules by blocking imports.

He said the Government would notify the European Commission that it intended bringing in laws on microbeads and asking for a derogation from the EU rules.

When questioned about progress last December, he said: “I informed Commissioner Vella [Commissioner for the Environment and Maritime Affairs] by letter on 25th November last of my recent announcement that Ireland is beginning a process which will lead to a legislative ban on all products which contain microbeads in 2017.”

“The proposed legislative ban will be part of wide-ranging legislation on the marine environment [the Maritime Area and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill which has been a work in progress since 2013] which will also contain legal provision for the designation of a broad range of marine protected areas. In addition, this legislation will also make necessary amendments to the Dumping at Sea Acts.”

So he was planning to place microbeads in the midst of a major legislative reform project which could take years to complete. Even mentioning 2017 in that context seemed wildly optimistic.

Then in February Minister Coveney launched a public consultation process “in relation to a proposed legislative ban on certain products containing microbeads”. That consultation finished in March, attracting more than 3,000 submissions — not yet published.

In May, the Labour Party introduced their own bill to ban microbeads but were assured there was no need as there was all-party support for such a move and the Government was preparing to act. How?

“We are responding and propose to introduce comprehensive legislation to deal with the issue, either by way of a Committee Stage amendment to the Foreshore Act or in separate legislation,” Minister Coveney told the Dáil.

His Department said it was still assessing the 3,000-plus submissions, along with the best technical and scientific research, the legislative bans in the US and those in development elsewhere.

“From this we will identify a range of product types to be prohibited. We will also use this information to inform Ireland’s justification for the legislative ban, which has to be formally submitted to the EU Commission to obtain a derogation from single market requirements.”

No timeline was provided. In the meantime, the Irish Cosmetics, Detergent and Allied Products Association (ICDA) has questioned the need for a legislative ban, arguing there has been an 82% reduction in the use of plastic microbeads in personal care products since 2015 due to voluntary action by the cosmetics industry across Europe.

“The use of micro beads cosmetic products continues to decrease and the industry are on track to have voluntarily removed all plastic microbeads from rinse-off cosmetics by 2020,” it said.

“Therefore ICDA believe, If policy makers consider a legislative ban for microbeads in cosmetics is required, it is imperative that the scope is aligned with other legislation, for example in the USA, to facilitate trade and avoid disadvantaging the Irish industry, particularly SMEs.”

Urgent action needed to limit harm

Indications are that microplastics from the recycling process are causing harm, writes Caroline O’Doherty

Tiny bits of plastic, known as microplastics, are becoming a massive aquatic problem. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre has recently documented disturbing evidence that zooplankton, the tiny animals at the bottom of the marine food web, are ingesting plastics at surprising rates.
Tiny bits of plastic, known as microplastics, are becoming a massive aquatic problem. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre has recently documented disturbing evidence that zooplankton, the tiny animals at the bottom of the marine food web, are ingesting plastics at surprising rates.

IF ever there was an example to illustrate the law of unintended consequences, it is the slew of EU waste directives introduced over the last 20 years to try to stem the dumping of packaging, electrical items, car components, and general recyclable waste.

For while collectively they succeeded in diverting much plastic waste from landfill into recycling, they inadvertently created one of the sources of microplastic pollution in Ireland.

Research published in the last fortnight found that recycling plants were potentially releasing large amounts of microplastics into public sewers.

Part of the problem lies with the recycling process itself — plastic items are shredded into small pieces and then vigorously washed for reuse, with the result that tiny fragments escape with the waste water.

The researchers inspected a sample company considered to represent the best in plastics reprocessing systems, but found plastic fragments clearly visible on the surface of water that had already passed through the filtration system in the on-site waste water treatment plant.

The waste water received further treatment designed to eliminate any remaining particles of dirt or solids but the plastic survived this also. The final samples of water taken had a microplastic presence of 661,000 particles per cubic metre (1,000 litres).

Lax practices exacerbated the problem. At the end of the shredding and washing processes, the plastic was baled and readied for transport for reuse in manufacturing. The inspection found a yard littered with microplastic presumed to have come off when bales were moved and loaded.

When it rains in such a scenario, the surface water washes the whole lot down the drains and once again, into the sewers.

Lack of preventative legislation must also share the blame as there is no legal obligation on operators to install filters on drain openings to capture the particles.

There are regulations governing the amount of solids that can be allowed into sewers but they are based on weight. Microplastics are so light that large amounts of them can escape without any regulation being breached.

The Irish Waste Management Association (IWMA), which represents 42 companies in the waste collection and recycling business, was quick to point out that few companies here shred and wash.

“What our members do with waste generally is collect it, sort it, and send it on for treatment,” said Conor Walsh, IWMA secretary.

“We have a very coarse bag opening at the start of the process — it rips open the bag but doesn’t shred it.”

China and India are the main export markets, importing large quantities to feed their vast manufacturing sectors, and that’s where most of the shredding and washing takes place, he explained.

“There are some plastics reprocessors here but they’re dealing with mostly post-industrial plastics which are just one type of plastic rather than the post-consumer waste that comes from green bins and is a mix of types.”

The former should, in theory at least, be a neater, cleaner operation.

The research was carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT).

Lead researcher Dr Anne Marie Mahon of GMIT stressed there is much more study to be carried out on the sources, movement, ultimate destination, and impact of microplastics.

“We don’t know what the impact is. These numbers from the plant we looked at sound astronomical but what are they when they get out into the broader body of water that’s billions of cubic metres and what happens then, we don’t really know,” she said.

“But still, there’s leakage from an industry that we think should be cleaner because it’s recycling, and that’s something we need to watch.”

And the problem is wider than recycling plants. The research identified 1,644 companies working with plastic in a variety of ways, all of which are possible plastic polluters.

Typical manufacturing processes include sawing, milling, turning, shredding, and scrubbing — all described as ‘machining’ and all capable of leaving behind significant quantities of very fine shavings of plastic, or swarf as it is called.

Researchers visited a plastics producer, a large multinational, well-known and well regulated, which uses these processes. They measured microplastic going into the sewers at a rate of 51,400 particles per 1,000 litres of water.

They also viewed a different process in a plastics packaging factory where instead of machining, the heat-based process ‘thermoforming’ and moulding was in use. “There was almost no potential for microplastic production,” they said.

They recommended that moulding be used over machining wherever possible, but that costs more.

They found no evidence of microplastic contamination of waste water at a medical devices production facility either, despite the fact that it used machining processes, but the handling of swarf (chips or filings of material) was lax and “conducive to accidental spillages”.

Dr Mahon said the findings must be taken seriously by policymakers and legislators. “If you want to reduce the amount of microplastic that’s going into the oceans, you have to look at the sources,” she said.

“There’s been a lot of money going to end-of-chain clean-ups and while they are good for raising public awareness and may be good for the ecology of a particular beach, for example, really if you don’t do something at source you’re just going to have to keep pouring resources into clean-ups.

“You can imagine if you have a tap running and you’re mopping up the water without turning the tap off. It’s a bit pointless.”

Dr Mahon and colleagues at GMIT and University College Dublin have started work on the next phase of research — a three-year study that will look more closely at the origins and impacts of microplastics and trace their dispersal in the sea and up through the food chain.

She stressed, however, that action couldn’t wait three years. “We signed up for the precautionary principle in Europe [which requires governments to take action where scientists suspect something is causing environmental harm even if studies have not yet definitively proven it],” she said.

“This has to be abided by now because by the time we get good results or good knowledge regarding how it impacts humans and other species, it could be too late to do anything.

“So we really do have to adopt the precautionary principle and start looking at our processes within industry and within society in terms of purchasing and use of plastic products.”

Conor Walsh said IWMA members were open to improving their processes if needed. “Reading the [EPA/GMIT] report, it seems some of the plastic was being washed into drains from storage areas. It may just be that the storage of the plastic bales needs to be under cover and draining straight into waste water treatment channels through filters. That’s something that can be quite easily fixed if it’s a source of pollution.”

The EU is currently working on revised standards for waste treatment which will be mandatory as opposed to the current guidelines, and they specifically mention the need for ‘microfiltration’ and ‘ultrafiltration’ before waste water from plants is released to sewers.

“That’s what it takes. It needs Europe to take it seriously as an issue and then they can impose these regulations all over Europe which then come down to us through the EPA and local authorities,” said Mr Walsh.


Determined efforts to clean up coastline

Trying to tackle the scourge of plastic in the seas as an individual or community may seem like one drop out of the ocean, but there are determined efforts going on all over the country.

Coastwatch volunteers inspect the old landfill debris near Bray, Co Wicklow, that’s falling into the sea. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
Coastwatch volunteers inspect the old landfill debris near Bray, Co Wicklow, that’s falling into the sea. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

An Taisce’s Clean Coasts initiative has just completed one of its twice-yearly national clean-up campaigns with thousands of volunteers in its 540 Clean Coasts groups in towns, schools, and companies around the coastline coming out en masse to pick up litter that had accumulated on beaches and surrounding areas over the preceding months.

The programme is funded by the Department of the Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and Fáilte Ireland, and this year it reached out to those not involved in groups, but who love their beaches, encouraging them to take part in the #2minutebeachclean challenge.

Participants were asked to take two minutes out of their family outing, dog walk or jog to pick up litter and post the results on social media. The aim is two-fold — to clean beaches but also to make the general public more aware of the packaging they use and how they dispose of it.

Coastwatch has been carrying out its annual autumn coastline survey since 1987 — the first country group in the Coastwatch Europe collective to take on the project which has now spread internationally. Very detailed surveys are carried out by some 2000 volunteers who are asked to record findings under a wide range of headings including plant life, animal life, marine creatures, waste, litter, pollutants, activities in surrounding areas and signs and impacts of flooding and erosion.

Test kits are also supplied so samples can be collected and checked for water temperature, nitrate levels and acidity — all information that helps determine the health of the coastline and what might be affecting it.

The information is collated and analysed in partnership with scientists at Trinity College Dublin and preliminary results are available within weeks a full report published early each summer. This year there was a specific focus on plastic and that will come under greater scrutiny from now on.

BIM, the Sea Fisheries Board, has a ‘Fishing for Litter’ programme that encourages fishermen to bring back to port all their own litter plus anything they find in their nets.

They are supplied with heavy duty sacks and, once brought ashore, facilities are made available for the sorting, disposing or recycling of the finds.

So far seven ports are taking part in the scheme which began last year — Greencastle, Kinsale, Clogherhead, Killybegs, Castletownbere, Union Hall and Ros a Mhil — and close to 21 tonnes of marine litter has been collected in that short space of time.

Bulk of plastic slips down sinks and drains

There are many ways plastic gets into the sea, from the careless day tripper who leaves bottles and ice cream tubs behind them on the beach to the deliberate dumper who throws bags of household rubbish into the nearest river, to shipping accidents — one of which memorably resulted in a container spill of 28,000 plastic yellow ducks and other bath toys that turned up on shores around the world years later.

An old plastic bag protrudes form the layers of exposed landfill debris exposed at the cliff face. Picture: Nick Bradshaw
An old plastic bag protrudes form the layers of exposed landfill debris exposed at the cliff face. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

But these are only the more visible acts of plastic pollution — the bulk of the plastic entering seas is not so obvious because it slips down sinks and drains in tiny fragments.

Microfibres are shed in vast quantities from fleeces and other synthetic plastic-based clothing during washing and are carried away in the rinse water. Microbeads that are added to body scrubs, facial exfoliants and toothpastes are deliberately washed down the sink as is the manufacturers’ intention.

Microplastic in the form of shavings, shards and other fragments are a by-product of the manufacturing industry — both those companies that make plastic and those that use plastic as the raw material for consumer goods and components. Huge volumes of water are used in manufacturing processes much of the microplastic is washed away down the drain.

The plastic recycling industry also allows vast amounts of the material to get away by employing shredding and washing processes that create tiny fragments of plastic and, again, channel them down the drain.

Normal filters in public drains and private waste water treatment plants within manufacturing plants don’t catch microplastic — which is generally defined as scraps measuring from a nanometer, or one-millionth of a millimetre, to no more than five millimetres in size.

Imagine a grain of salt slipping through a sieve. That’s the challenge for filter systems. So these unseen enemies of the environment continue their journey through the sewers into the public treatment plants.

A study of the Ireland West Waste Water Treatment Plant found 97,000 particles of microplastic per cubic meter

(1000 litres) of water was coming into the plant. This was reduced by 98% by the time the water was treated and left the plant because the particles were captured in the sludge which is the end product of treatment.

But the study concluded: “The 2% of microplastics not retained in sludge should be considered a potentially significant input of microplastic pollution.”

And the ultimate destination of the captured particles is not clear either as the sludge is required by European law to be ‘safely’ disposed of by spraying on agricultural land. What impact this has on the soil and produce grown in it is another day’s work but there is inevitable run-off into lakes, rivers and ultimately the sea.

Watch out for ingredients in cosmetics

Choosing a body scrub, facial cleanser or toothpaste without microbeads should be easy enough because those that contain them have tended to boast of their presence along with claims that are deep cleaning, invigorating or energising.

Microplastic threat: Vast floating carpet of waste particles damaging to our environment and us

But now that the heat is on manufacturers to ban the bead, those that continue to use them — because sales figures tell us that consumers clearly like them and because they are a cheap way of bulking out a product — may be less likely to advertise the fact or be more subtle in how they do it.

Key ingredients to watch out for on packaging used by manufacturers who are still upfront about their ingredients include polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE), polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) and nylon.

But campaigners say there are some 60 different microplastic ingredients in use in cosmetics and many may not be listed. And they point out that they are also used in nail varnish and lipstick — to add shine — and in pressed powders to add either shine or a matt finish — such is the versatility of microbeads.

They also say that some manufacturers are getting around restrictions, impending restrictions or any consumer sensitivity by switching to biodegradable plastics — polylactic acid is one — which are plastics nonetheless.

The United Nations Environment Programme has a campaign, beatthemicrobead.org, backed by 90 environmental groups and other non-governmental organisations in 38 countries, which lists products which contain microbeads, or free of them or are phasing them out.

It is also encouraging manufacturers to adopt the the ‘zero’ symbol — a green circle containing the triangular recycling emblem and a zero in the middle to denote that the product is plastic free.


We hear a lot about the geese, ducks and swans that arrive here from colder climes for the winter, but much less about smaller birds that come here to escape harsher conditions in northern Europe.Keep an eye out for redwings this winter

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