Here’s why we need to step up the battle against microplastics

We can't wait for the UK ban to take effect - the crisis in our oceans is now (sponsored).

As a chain of 19 nurseries in the South of England announce they are banning glitter because of environmental concerns, the anti-microplastics campaign continues to gather momentum.

Tops Days Nurseries, a prominent chain of nurseries that caters for thousands of children, have just announced they will be banning glitter from all of their centres.

The announcement comes in the midst of mounting scientific evidence that suggests that microplastics are having a detrimental effect on the environment.

And glitter – as the microplastic of the moment during the festive period – is very much a contributor to these concerns. So, what are microplastics?

For the unfamiliar, microplastics are fragments of plastic less than five millimetres in length that form both naturally and artificially. Primarily, manufacturers develop microplastics for use in cosmetics, but they can also be found in artificial football turf and laundry fibres. Microplastics also form when larger plastics are gradually broken down and eroded over time.

Much to the chagrin of environmentalists, they have continued to accrue in the world’s oceans in spite of the obvious harm they are causing. A 2015 report, published in the journal Science, estimated that eight million metric tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year. Other research, including a report commissioned by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has even gone as far as to suggest that plastic levels may outnumber marine life by 2050.

And what is the effect of this annual advance of plastic? Put simply, it has continued to wreak havoc with the world’s oceans and the abundance of marine life that it houses. A series of investigations into the relationship between the two has unanimously revealed that plastic has had an overwhelmingly negative effect on marine life. Ingestion of plastic at best, can hinder the growth of the marine life that consumes it, and at worst, can be fatal.

If the proliferation of microplastics goes unchecked, they could begin to have dire consequences higher up the food chain. Earlier this year, a University of Ghent study into the presence of microplastics in seafood made these fears a reality.

They discovered that European shellfish consumers can expect to encounter over 11,000 fragments of plastic every year. Similarly, a study conducted at Plymouth University discovered that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish.

While the extent of the threat posed by plastic-riddled food has yet to be quantified, the research nevertheless reaches some alarming conclusions.

So, with scientists and campaigners across the globe decrying the spread of microplastics, how can we turn anger into action?

In September 2016, Andrea Leadsom announced the government’s intention to change legislation to end the inclusion of microplastics in personal care and cosmetic products by October of this year. Unfortunately, as of writing, the proposed change has yet to materialise.

Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom’s successor as environmental secretary, confirmed that the ban would go ahead, but only in microplastic-containing ‘rinse-off’ cosmetic and personal care products, not in any microplastic-containing cosmetic and personal care products that are considered ‘leave-on’ – like make-up and sun screen.

For cosmetics, dates are in place: manufacture is set to terminate on 1st January 2018, while sales are meant to cease from 30th June 2018. That’s a positive step. But it is disappointing that the government could not be bold enough to take a more all-encompassing and stringent stance.

But while the government has elected to cut out microplastics at their source, they are failing to recognise the efficacy of filtering them out later on.

After being swept away by drainage pumps, microplastics can be removed from wastewater at treatment plants using the kind of membrane technology that is commonplace in Scandinavia.

At many of the UK’s largest wastewater treatment plants though, they are not only failing to remove microplastics, they are contributing many of their own. A report published just last month, uncovered the presence of millions of BioBeads (the tiny plastic pellets that are used to separate chemical contaminants from wastewater) scattered as far away as northern Europe.

If anything, all this demonstrates that the fight against microplastics has only just begun.

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