In June 2018 the UK's microbead ban came fully into force. The legislation developed by the UK Department for Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs marked the culmination of efforts by a coalition of NGOs, including Fauna & Flora International (FFI), to address this source of avoidable microplastic pollution across the UK.
Used in a wide range of consumer products, including rinse-off toiletries such as facial scrubs, shaving products and toothpastes, microbeads (microplastic particles) are known to pass through wastewater treatment and enter the sea, where their size makes them immediately available to filter feeders (Tanaka & Takada, 2016, Scientific Reports, 6, 34351). FFI has engaged with this issue since 2009, has compiled a database of > 1,500 products to identify those containing microplastic ingredients and developed a set of guidelines to inform robust national bans and corporate policies on microbeads (https://api.fauna-flora.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Microbeads-Guidance- Document.pdf). These guidelines were used to inform the UK microbead legislation and are now being shared more widely, with a simplified briefing for their use being made available for other countries or companies considering such action.
On the basis of this achievement, and in line with the current upsurge in public and political interest in plastic pollution, FFI has launched a revised and expanded strategy to guide its ongoing work to tackle marine plastics. FFI recognizes the many threats plastic poses to marine life (including entanglement in abandoned fishing gear and the impact of ingestion of plastic pieces) and also has specific concerns about the potential for microplastic pollution to introduce hazardous substances into the marine food chain.
This new strategy has a stronger focus on FFI's international role in supporting the development of local initiatives to target marine plastics, particularly in countries where plastic pollution is most problematic. We recognize that management of plastic waste presents specific challenges in the context of emerging and developing economies, and are looking for solutions to deal with the consequences for ocean pollution and human health through reduction at source rather than just focusing on clean-ups. Scoping work for interventions is under development in Cambodia, Indonesia, Honduras, Kenya and Belize. In addition, we are actively supporting the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/commonwealth-unites-to-end-scourge-of-plastic), a group of Commonwealth nations working together to address plastic pollution, convened by the UK and Vanuatu. This provides a means for countries to share expertise, access resources where needed and develop joint commitments to act on plastics.
However, FFI also retains a strong focus on preventing direct sources of microplastic pollution (plastic particles reaching the ocean at sizes < 5 mm, such as microbeads, plastic pellets and microplastic fibres), given concerns about the potential for microplastics to introduce hazardous substances (either additives or sorbed chemicals) into the marine food chain. We continue to address the loss of pre-production pellets (so-called nurdles) to the environment, and are advocating a supply chain approach to their management. This would ensure that pellets are well handled by all companies who use, transport or otherwise handle them, against recognized standards and with clear objective monitoring and reporting. This approach for tackling pellet loss was mentioned in this year's EU Plastic Strategy (https://ec.europa.eu/commission/publications/legal-documents-plastics-strategy-circular-economy_en), at recent OSPAR (Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) meetings, and in the Plastics Charter issued as part of the 2018 G7 communiqué (https://g7.gc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/OceanPlasticsCharter.pdf). We continue to work with other NGOs, the plastics industry, retailers, standards bodies, investors and government on this issue. We have also started to identify ways in which we can help address the emerging challenge of microplastic fibres polluting the marine environment, whether from synthetic clothing via washing machines or directly from ropes and nets used at sea.
Across our work, FFI aims to provide strong evidence-based advice on potential solutions to marine plastic pollution. Although FFI recognizes that plastic can have a vital role in global society (e.g. in healthcare and in some situations for providing access to safe water), we also advocate careful and thoughtful use of plastic, using it only where it is determined to be necessary and the best solution relative to alternative materials. We also disseminate key stories about marine plastics issues, particularly with an international flavour, through our @marine_plastics Twitter account.