NFWI Resolutions Shortlist 2016 – Resolution Number 1: Ban the microbead

In the first of the NFWI resolutions to be presented to Sotonettes members for ballot, the use of microbeads is debated.


Sotonettes members are entitled to vote on this issue; for more information, click here, or download a handy booklet here. Or visit our Facebook page.

“Beach litter and floating plastic debrisMicrobeads is more than just an unsightly problem. Scientific research shows that plastic microbeads, found in cosmetic and personal care products, are polluting the oceans and causing long- term health risks for both aquatic life and people. We call on WI members to take action to reduce use of plastic microbead-containing products in their own homes and communities; to raise awareness of the problems associated with plastic microbeads; and to lobby manufacturers, retailers and see the UK Government following in the steps of the Netherlands and other countries in proposing a ban on the use of these products.”

Proposer’s position

The proposer’s intention is to highlight the impact of microbeads on marine ecosystems, encourage behaviour change, build consumer pressure on companies to change their practices, and work towards a ban on the use of microbeads in the UK.

Outline of the issue

‘Microbeads’ are microplastic particles that are found in cosmetic and personal care products. Overwhelmingly, they are made of polyethylene (93%) with the rest made of polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, polytetrafluoroethylene, and nylon. Natural alternatives to the use of microbeads include oatmeal, sea salt, and ground nutshells. Microbeads measure less than a millimetre wide, which means they cannot be filtered out at water treatment plants and so end up in rivers and oceans.

With each use of products such as facial scrubs releasing up to 100,000 microbeads, recent research by the University of Plymouth estimates that up to 80 tonnes of microbeads could end up entering waterways every year from using such products in the UK alone. Once in the water, the plastic acts like a sponge, soaking up toxins (e.g. pesticides and flame retardants) that have also found their way into the ecosystem, creating a concentrated source of toxic chemicals, which are then eaten by a range of marine organisms (such as commercially important fish and shellfish to baleen whales). Microplastics account for around 10% of all reported ingestion of marine debris, with particular impact on organisms with a range of feeding methods such as filter feeders (mussels and barnacles), deposit feeders (lugworms) and detritivores (sea cucumbers) and zooplankton. Organisms are often confused between microplastics and plankton, especially given the plastic concentration in the water. Basking sharks have been estimated to consume approximately 13,110 microplastic items per day and Mediterranean fin whales approximately 3,653 items.

In the UK, 83% of Norway lobsters (which are often sold as scampi) sampled contained microplastic debris. In the English Channel, 36.5% of sampled fish, including whiting and mackerel, had ingested plastic. In the Mediterranean, plastic ingestion was found in 18.2% of Bluefin tuna and albacore tuna. A range of studies show that adverse effects of microplastic ingestion include decreased feeding, weight loss, decreased energy reserves, compromised fitness, hepatic stress, impaired health, and potentially starvation over time.

This has important implications not just for marine ecosystems but also humans. Healthy oceans are essential for thriving marine ecosystems, livelihoods and economies both in the UK and globally. Additionally, there is growing concern that the microbeads and the toxic chemicals they accumulate are making their way up the food chain to people, with the consequences of this build up for human health largely unknown.

Prevention is key. Once in the marine environment particles react with the ecosystem and become embedded in the seabed, shoreline and plant matter – making clean-up operations labour intensive, time-consuming, and costly. UNEP recommends a precautionary approach toward microplastic management, with the eventual phase out and ban of plastics in cosmetics and personal care products. Public pressure campaigns, such as Beat the Microbead and Scrub it Out, have persuaded many companies to commit to phasing out microplastics. Despite these pledges, campaigners are still calling for legislative action to speed up the process, ensure that commitments are maintained, and provide a level playing field for manufacturers.

There has been some movement in legislating against microbeads in the US, with California being the most recent state to ban microbeads. The Netherlands has announced its intention to be virtually free of microbeads in cosmetics by the end of 2016, Australian policymakers are calling for a formal ban, and in January of this year Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden issued a joint call to ban the use of microplastics in personal care products, with the aim of protecting marine ecosystems, including seafood, from contamination. In the US, there has been resistance to legal bans from certain brands that argue that micro-size plastic in the water supply can come from other byproducts, such as synthetic fabric. In addition, microbeads can be found in some non-cosmetic products and processes. There have also been some concern around the terminology used in the legislation which campaigners are worried might create potential loop-holes. For instance, some bans have qualifying phrases (e.g. “rinse off personal care products”) which exclude a number of products (e.g. deodorants and cleaners).

Arguments for the resolution

• While microbeads are only one aspect of marine litter, due to their presence and quantity in products and their resistance to degradation, their abundance in the ocean is assumed to be increasing. Additionally, this is a type of marine pollution that is avoidable.

• This resolution encompasses a strong role for consumer action, both by bringing pressure to companies that have yet to make a commitment, as well as showing support for those that have. This consumer action fits the WI ethos of practical action.

• This resolution fits within the WI’s longstanding concern for healthy and sustainable marine ecosystems.

Arguments against the resolution

• There are still gaps in research and understanding around the precise impact of microbeads on marine ecosystems.

• This resolution focuses specifically on cosmetic and personal care products, while microbeads can also be found in other products such as paint or sand-blasting.

• While there is a lack of consumer awareness of the problem, campaigns such as Beat the Microbead are growing in success.

Groups to contact for further information

Beat the Microbead (a Plastic Soup Foundation initiative)

Van Hallstraat 52-1, 1051 HH Amsterdam

Tel: +31 (0)85 401 6244



Fauna & Flora International

Jupiter House, 4th Floor, Station Road, Cambridge, CB1 2JD

Tel: 1223 571 000

Twitter logo v small@FaunaFloraInt


Marine Conservation Society

Overross House, Ross Park, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, HR9 7QQ

Tel: 01989 566017

Twitter logo v small@mcsuk


• NFWI 2016 Annual Meeting Resolution Shortlist Briefings note

• Napper (2015)

• EIA 2015

• Napper 2015

• State of Europe’s seas, 2015

• EIA 2015

• State of Europe’s seas, 2015

• UNEP (2015) Plastic in cosmetics: are we polluting the environment through our personal care Fact sheet


• Rochman, 2015