[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Fourth Report of the Environmental Audit Committee, Environmental impact of microplastics, HC 179, and the Government Response, HC 802.]
I understand that an important photograph is being taken at 2.30 pm, which means that a number of lady Members will arrive late to the debate. The Chairman of Ways and Means made it quite clear at our last Panel of Chairs meeting that etiquette requires Members to be present at the start of the debate if they want to participate, including through interventions, and they cannot just intervene and then clear off. However, having discussed this matter with the wise Clerk, in these special circumstances I shall show some flexibility.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed ban on microbeads.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Those Members may decide, because of etiquette, that they will not come to the debate at all, but thank you for your kind words, which are much appreciated.
This morning, hon. Friends and Members will have used a plethora of cosmetics and personal care products in our ablutions, including shower gels, shampoos, face washes, toothpastes and so on. Perhaps unwittingly, we will have washed millions of teeny-weeny plastic microbeads, which are a key ingredient in many of those products, down the drain, and they will eventually find their way through our water systems into the rivers and seas. “How can that be?” I hear you ask, Sir David. The truth is that we have become a plastic society, and unbeknown to us, plastics infiltrate our lives through an enormous range of products that we use every day. It is increasingly coming to light that many of these plastics are in fact causing damage to our environment, in particular our marine environment, which is now heavily polluted with plastics as a direct result of the actions of mankind.
Plastics have become an inextricable part of our lives, with ever increasing quantities being used. In the UK alone, we increased our production of plastics by 38% between 2004 and 2014. No one denies that plastics are extremely useful, but with their increased use has come, sadly, increased pollution of our seas.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Plastics are ubiquitous, but does she agree that there are alternatives to their use? We have to get manufacturers using alternatives to microbeads, such as sugar and nut derivatives, to ensure that our precious oceans are not polluted at all.
My hon. Friend makes a really good point, which I will address later. He is absolutely right; there are alternatives, and many manufacturers are looking to convert to them. Ground coconut husk and apricot kernels are other examples of things that could replace microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.
There is lots of visible plastic pollution and rubbish. Plastic bags, bottles and fishing detritus such as discarded ropes and lines are all polluting our oceans and seas, but it is the less obvious tiny particles—microbeads of less than 5 mm—that present a real danger to shellfish and fish, which often ingest them mistaking them for food. It is estimated that a total of 15 trillion to 51 trillion microplastic particles have accumulated in the oceans. This debate is about plastic microbeads, and in particular their use in cosmetic and personal care products.
Recent studies suggest that these minuscule dots of plastic, when washed into the ocean, could represent a threat to humans as a result of eating fish. One study revealed that in 2009, microplastics were found in 36.5% of fish caught by trawlers in the English channel. Sir David, I do not know if you are a fancier of oysters, but for every six oysters consumed, one might consume 50 microbeads.
Microbeads are tiny balls of polyethylene and other plastics derived from petrochemicals, including polypropylene and polystyrene. They are used in a wide range of cosmetic products, including exfoliators, shower gels, whitening toothpaste and face washes, as well as in many abrasive cleaning products. Interestingly, though we are not talking about this today, fleeces also contain plastic microfibers, and when one puts on one’s car brakes, the tyres fray, which is another way that microfibres find their way into the watercourses.
How do microbeads get into the sea? If they could be removed once they had been washed down the drain, there would not be a problem, but in evidence on the environmental impact of microbeads taken by the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I was delighted to sit, it became apparent that removing them is a very tricky process and few water companies have the sophisticated filtration systems needed to do it. As a result, many of these products, complete with their microplastics, are flushed down the drain during our daily ablutions and end up in the watercourses and ultimately the sea.
Scientists have demonstrated that fish exposed to microplastics during their development can show stunted growth and increased mortality rates, as well as changed behaviour that could endanger their survival—especially reduced hatching rates. An article was published in Science relating to that. Estimating the toxicity of microplastics is complex and the full dangers to human health are not fully quantified yet, but studies have revealed that these plastics are entering the food chain, although the full impact is hard to measure. Microplastics can release and adsorb toxic chemicals and may act as a vector for them, transferring contaminants to organisms that ingest microplastics. I am heartened that Government sources have stated that the chief scientific adviser will review the effects on human health in future.
One fifth of microbeads are used in the cosmetics and personal care industry, and some 680 tonnes of plastic microbeads are used in cosmetic products in the UK every year. This is an important industry, worth £10 billion in the UK in 2016, and we have the second largest cosmetics market in Europe. It makes a significant contribution to our economy, not to mention the fact that it keeps us clean and beautiful, and I am the first to say that I enjoy using make-up and all these products. It is very important that we do not damage the industry, but surely the industry does not want to have on its conscience any associated link with damage the environment. With the right science behind it, the industry could turn to alternatives, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said. Indeed, many companies are doing that.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Manufacturers get a little worried when there is the possibility of a ban. Does she agree that there is therefore a greater incentive for them to get on with researching and implementing substitutes and replacements quickly, before we implement a ban?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being not the litter hero in this regard but the microbeads heroine and on flying the flag for getting rid of microbeads. Does she agree that it is important we make transitional arrangements on both microbeads and single-use plastic bottles—which I am thrilled to see we are not using in this Chamber—so that companies are able to plan carefully for more environmentally friendly ways of working?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is a great campaigner for the clearing of litter, including plastic bottles. I agree that we do not want to damage a valuable industry that employs many people. The timescale for introducing any ban will be very important. I will touch on that later.
With the right science behind it, the industry can turn to alternatives. The Environmental Audit Committee concluded that a microbead ban, as well as benefiting the environment,
“would have advantages for consumers and the industry in terms of consistency of approach, universality and confidence.”
It would also create a level playing field within the industry.
Microplastics from the cosmetics and personal care industry are thought to be responsible for up to 4% of total plastics found in the ocean. That might seem like a drop in the ocean, Sir David, but I assure you that it is not. Every year, 8,600 tonnes of plastic from this industry are poured into European waters alone, so it is significant. Yes, there is lots of other plastic that we should tackle, but I would postulate that this industry and the microbeads it uses provide a manageable place to begin.
There has been a wave of public good will on this issue, demonstrated by the hundreds of people who signed the Greenpeace petition and by the response to my personal campaign to highlight the problems and encourage change. Public support has also been shown through the publicity generated on the back of other campaigns by organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society, representatives of which came to the environment forum that I held in Taunton Deane. That was a cross-party event, but there was much consensus on how we should make progress. [Interruption.] A wave of women Members are coming into the Chamber following the photographs being taken, and I welcome them to the microbeads debate.
Much good work has been done. Many companies have voluntarily stopped using microbeads, or indeed never used them in the first place—companies such as Ecover, family-run Cornish company Spiezia, Liz Earle and Neal’s Yard. It was companies such as those that I was searching out in my own campaign to find microbead-free products. I believe the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who was also on the Environmental Audit Committee and still is, will agree that it is quite difficult to work out whether a product contains microbeads because, first, companies are not obliged to disclose what products contain, and secondly, one needs a magnifying glass to read and a chemistry textbook to understand the complicated terminology. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider introducing clearer labelling on products, so that in the run-up to any ban it will be easier for consumers to opt for microbead-free products. We have had much discussion about this in the Tea Room, with people getting out their products to try to analyse whether they contain microbeads, and it is quite testing. There is still a long way to go, and a ban might speed up the process and create a level playing field for all manufacturers, as there are currently discrepancies between what different manufacturers class as the relevant microbeads for banning.
Let me deal quickly with other countries. The United States of America and Canada have already legislated to prohibit the production or use of microplastics, although they have come in for some criticism. The US Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was limited to microbeads with exfoliating functions in rinse-off products, meaning that many microplastics were excluded from the legislation. That indicates how much consideration is needed when deciding how and what to ban.
Alternatives have been mentioned. There are both natural and synthetic alternatives, although care must be taken in determining how safe some of them are. Examples are apricot kernels and ground coconut shell. What if millions of those particles also start to get washed into the marine environment? How safe are they? Can they be filtered out? What if too many go in?
Why not simply encourage a voluntary system for getting rid of microbeads, leaving it entirely to consumers to decide whether to use products containing microbeads and leaving manufacturers to go down this road themselves? The cosmetics industry will tell us that 70% of microbeads have already been phased out, but as I mentioned, standards vary and it is difficult to tell quite what has been phased out. Plastic carrier bags are a good example of where change en masse did not really happen until the Government intervened with the 5p charge. The voluntary approach to cutting microbeads has not had the impact that it might have had, but I am pleased to say that the Government are stepping in and the tide is turning.
I welcome the moves that are being made, because the Government are listening. They have listened to public concerns: more than one third of the British public backed a ban on microbeads. They have listened to calls from organisations such as Fauna and Flora International and the Marine Conservation Society, and from colleagues, and they have heeded the various campaigns. I was delighted when, in September 2016, the Government announced an intention to ban the manufacture and sale of cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads and opened a consultation. I was also pleased that the consultation was broadened out to include evidence on the extent of the environmental impact of microbeads in other products. The consultation closed last week.
I do not know whether you were there, Sir David, but I was heartened that in her response to me last week in Prime Minister’s questions—when I dared to ask Mr Speaker whether he had had a shower that morning—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister committed to introducing a ban on microplastics in this industry by 1 October. That is a commendable position and chimes well with the Government’s determination to leave the environment
“in a better state than that in which we found it”,
but there are a few points that I would like the Minister to consider in relation to the proposed ban.
The terminology used in the proposed ban is important if loopholes are to be avoided. For example, should it cover only rinse-off products or should it also cover leave-in products? This is where we start to get into the detail. Under the cosmetics directive, “rinse-off” refers to products that should be rinsed off the skin immediately after application for health and safety reasons—exfoliators, for example—but there are many other products that might stay on and be rinsed off later. What about those?
I have been in touch with the UK’s Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, which is at pains to stress that leave-in products are a much smaller part of the problem. It is keen to limit the ban to rinse-off products. It says that if we include leave-in products, it might take three and a half years to reformulate products. That is where the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) about giving companies enough time comes in. If improving the environment is the key priority, I suggest that those products should be part of the plan, but companies should be given enough time to reformulate their products; they need workable timescales.
Many products other than cosmetics and personal care products contain microplastics that end up going down the drain, including industrial cleaning products and paints. I mentioned car tyre wear and tear. Should all plastics that do not dissolve in water be considered for the ban? Caution needs to be displayed where exemptions might be considered for so-called biodegradable plastics, because none has been conclusively demonstrated to be fully biodegradable in real-world marine conditions. In relation to effects on human health, we need clear evidence to demonstrate what the effects are of microbeads going into the sea and then humans consuming fish or shellfish that have consumed microbeads. I ask the Minister to consider a research strategy to assess and mitigate pollution. That was another Environmental Audit Committee recommendation.
We need to embrace the idea of the circular economy. Many companies are already doing very good recycling work with their plastics. We need all companies to make progress on recycling and reuse.
Finally, let me say a bit more about the wider issue of plastics pollution. As I said at the beginning, we are a plastic society. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is very concerned about plastic bottles. We recently attended a litter breakfast—a plastic bottle breakfast, where we learned that a shocking 8 billion plastic water bottles are used and thrown away every single year, and 30% of those are used by children during sport. Many of them end up not just on our streets, but floating in the sea, and they gradually break down to form microbeads.
I thank the Minister for that intervention and am only too pleased to hear it, to be quite honest, because that statistic is absolutely shocking.
Coming back to the here and now, there must be opportunities to tackle the wider problems with plastic. I welcome the forthcoming litter strategy; perhaps the Minister will indicate what we might expect in that and in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ 25-year plan to tackle all these issues. I know the Minister is listening and that she cares passionately about the state of our seas. Indeed, this Government have already done excellent work on our marine conservation zones.
In concluding, I return to the proposed ban on microplastics used in the cosmetics and personal care industry. I urge that we put the marine environment centre stage. Let us not sacrifice our precious seas and the creatures that depend on them, and indeed the health of future generations. We must do right by them.
Order. Before proceeding with the debate, I want to repeat that in our last Panel of Chairs meeting, it was emphasised that if Members make interventions, they must stay throughout the debate. They cannot make an intervention and then depart. Those are now the rules.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing this debate. I know that she is passionate about this subject, and that came through clearly in her opening speech. I also congratulate the Government on putting aside for once their hard-wired preference for voluntary approaches—a battle that I frequently have with them on these issues—and committing to a ban on microbeads in cosmetic and personal products. As I have said several times, if America can do it, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot; if Obama was persuaded of the need to do it, surely we ought to listen and take the same view.
I congratulate the Environmental Audit Committee on its excellent inquiry, which highlighted the loopholes and inconsistencies in voluntary action taken by the cosmetics industry. As we have heard, some companies have decided to phase out products. I had the pleasure of visiting the Lush factory in Poole a few weeks ago, and I am sure the hon. Lady would be very much welcome there. I got to make bath bombs and see all sorts of other products being made. As a company, Lush accepts that it is not 100% perfect but it has an ambition to be as environmentally friendly as possible. For example, when people buy the big gift boxes with several products in, the Wotsit-like things that are used for packaging are now made of potato starch rather than polystyrene, so the moment water is poured on them, they completely degrade. That is the sort of approach we ought to urge companies to adopt.
As I said, it is welcome that the Government are moving forward with the ban. However, like the hon. Lady, I am concerned that it may not be fully comprehensive and include all products that eventually end up in our water supply. She outlined in detail the difference between rinse-off products and products that stay on the skin a bit longer, and I urge the Minister to be as comprehensive as possible. I hope the Government also see the opportunity to take the lead on this issue internationally. We are so good on marine protected areas and are rightly respected internationally for the action we have taken around our overseas territories. I urge the Government to think of this as a pledge we could make under the United Nations’ clean seas campaign; doing so would be a real contribution and we could urge other countries to do the same.
As the hon. Member for Taunton Deane said, the issue of microbeads is a manageable place to begin. As expected, she did such justice to the topic and covered almost anything that anybody could say on it—I expected that to be the case. With your permission, Sir David, I want to talk about the much larger problem of plastic litter polluting the marine environment. This is not just about the damage larger objects do. When items such as plastic bottles enter the water, they eventually break down into ever smaller pieces and become microplastics in themselves. They cause damage in exactly the same way as microbeads do—they just do not start out as tiny items in the first place.
I had the privilege of attending the UN parliamentary assembly in New York last month. It had a special focus on sustainable development goal 14, which is about protecting the oceans. It was widely recognised by the delegates taking part in that discussion that implementing sustainable development goal 12, which is about sustainable consumption and responsible production, was critical to achieving sustainable development goal 14 on ocean health.
Plastic is a durable material that is made to last forever, but far too much of it is used once and then thrown away. Only a third of plastic packaging used in consumer products is recycled in the UK. The rest is either landfilled or incinerated or, worse still, it is never collected and ends up clogging up our sewers and polluting our marine and land ecosystems where it can remain for literally hundreds of years. Anyone involved in the protect our waves all-party parliamentary group might have seen the items that Surfers Against Sewage brought along that they had found. The divers and surfers have found items such as Golden Wonder crisp packets with “3p” on them, which have only just been retrieved from the seas, and coke cans with different designs on. That shows just how long those things will last in the marine environment.
Something as indestructible as plastic should not be disposable. Plastic bottles and other single-use plastics are commonly found in beach clean-ups. Surfers Against Sewage organise those, as does the Marine Conservation Society, and they report that plastic bottles in particular are frequently found along with items such as cotton bud sticks and bottle caps. About 8 million tonnes of plastic enter oceans every year and, as I said, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces causing real harm to marine life and ecosystems.
The hon. Lady is making a passionate point about wider plastics. Many plastic balls that are bigger than microbeads—I think they are called nurdles—are found washed up on beaches. I know that in Scotland, in particular, lots of collections have been made, and we would be horrified at the quantity of those things that are washing up on beaches.
I very much agree with the hon. Lady’s point, which is an example of what I am saying—plastics become unrecognisable, but they may have been bigger products in the first place, or used as that size of product in various ways.
Plastic entanglement or ingestion can cause choking, intestinal blockages and starvation. One recent study showed that 90% of birds have plastics in their stomachs. On cleanwater.org, Clean Water Action documented the case of a California grey whale that had washed up dead; its stomach contained a pair of pants, a golf ball, more than 20 bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves. Just recently, extraordinary levels of toxic pollutants—industrial chemicals that were banned in the 1970s—were found in the remotest place on the planet: the 10 km deep Mariana trench in the Pacific ocean.
Some Members may have seen the recent documentary “A Plastic Ocean”, which I recommend to them if they have not. It does a phenomenal job of showing what is inside the sea birds and marine animals that they cut open. Sky’s programme “A Plastic Tide” showed truly shocking images of beaches from Mumbai to Scotland, where the daily tide tips up a layer of plastic from around the world. Tourists in Arrochar—have I pronounced that right? I look to my Scottish National party colleagues to tell me—asked why someone had apparently chosen to locate a landfill on a site of such natural beauty.
There is a great deal more that we can all do to reduce plastic litter as consumers taking individual action and as producers; also, critically, there can be action by the Government. Prevention is better than cure. The best way of stopping such litter reaching our rivers and sea is at source—by reducing the amount of waste that is generated in the first place. In 2014 annual global plastic production stood at 311 million tonnes. Shockingly, more than 40% of it was for single-use packing. As much as possible, we need to stop using single-use plastic, from refusing drinking straws to bringing our own bags to the shops. Plastic Ocean has a great check list.
Cities around the world, such as Delhi, have introduced a ban on disposable plastic, and I hope we will soon see an end to the travesty of manufacturers mis-labelling synthetic wet wipes as flushable. I think that will be the next campaign for me and the hon. Member for Taunton Deane. Although the wipes disappear when flushed, that gives the impression they are biodegradable and do not cause harm, but they very much do.
I want to pay particular tribute to the Bristol-based environmental organisation, City to Sea, which campaigns to reduce the amount of plastic flowing from the Avon into the Bristol channel. As well as organising clean-ups, it has encouraged local shops and bars to allow people to refill their drinking water bottles so that they do not have to buy plastic bottles. It has also been brilliant at going round to retailers to try to get them to stop producing plastic cotton bud sticks. It has now got every single one of them to sign up to paper sticks instead, so that shows what can be achieved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) and I recently met City to Sea to discuss its campaign to make Bristol a single use plastic-free city. We have a Facebook page that I would like to plug here to publicise the work we are doing. It is called “Let’s Stop Plastic Pollution”.
With litter levels hardly budging over a decade, England stubbornly remains a throwaway society. I very much hope we will see in the Government’s forthcoming litter strategy proposals to introduce a deposit return scheme for single-use drinks containers, which could help reduce littering, increase recycling and cut back on illegal dumping. Research by the Bristol-based organisation, Eunomia, has shown the scale of the problem and how plastic bottles are littered disproportionately more than any other items. It has also shown the success of deposit return schemes in massively reducing littering of beverage containers: by as much as 80% in one US study. There is growing support for such a scheme. Even Coca-Cola, having resisted, has now said it is on board, which is great news.
We also need to focus on people’s attitudes to dropping litter. Despite the blustery weather, showers and gales, I spent most of the weekend taking part in the Mayor of Bristol’s clean streets initiative. Community volunteers were given hi-vis and litter pickers, and we were out filling sack upon sack with rubbish, most of it plastic, from crisp packets to bottles and all sorts of things. The initiative is partly about making the streets tidier, but also about trying to send a message to the community that they need to play their part. We will make the litter pickers and hi-vis available in libraries so that anyone can go out for half an hour and pick up if they want to. Hopefully, it will be a three-year campaign. The worst bit of the day was seeing a hedge where it was clear that everyone who walked past thought that that was where to put their Coke can or plastic bottle, rather than putting it in the bin down the road. We need to persuade people that that is not the case.
We have heard about the plastic bag charge and how that can make a difference. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane mentioned the circular economy, and I agree that that is where we need to see action from the Government. There are currently too few incentives for or requirements on producers to make their packaging recyclable, leaving local councils to clear up the mess and local taxpayers to foot the bill. Of the 7 million coffee cups thrown away each day, only 1% are recycled through normal collection systems. The Environmental Audit Committee’s next inquiry will be on coffee cups and plastic bottles. Most local authorities do not have the facilities to separate the plastic membrane from the cardboard.
We even have new products coming onto the market such as Nescafé’s incomprehensible Azera, which encourages consumers to make their “coffee to go” at home in a non-recyclable takeaway cup, which is ridiculous. Black plastic is frequently used in packaging, especially in high-end products, even though most local authorities cannot recycle it.
I hope the Government will look seriously at the role that regulation can play in stimulating markets to recycle or reuse materials, such as the proposals by the Environmental Services Association for a new framework for producer responsibility. It is terrific that Unilever has announced plans to make all its plastic packaging recyclable by 2025, but to support businesses that have decided to do the right thing we have to stop other companies being able to undercut them, otherwise we will see the situation that has been referred to.
Taking the circular economy seriously could be a huge opportunity for us. It has been suggested it could deliver half a million jobs. The future is not in low-cost products using finite resources that are designed to fail after their warranty expires but in products that are designed and manufactured for reuse or recycling. Although I welcome what the Government are doing on microbeads, I hope I have stressed to the Minister that they are literally a tiny part of the problem. We need to see a much more ambitious approach not only to microbeads but across the board.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow such great speakers—we have had two fantastic ones already.
I am pleased to see that DEFRA is consulting on a ban on microbeads in cosmetic products. Microplastics and other plastics in our oceans is the biggest environmental challenge that we face as a nation at the moment. It is absolutely ludicrous that hundreds of thousands of pieces of small plastic are washed down our drains each and every day when we take showers. Microplastics are having an environmental impact. Studies have shown that they are being ingested by micro-organisms and small marine animals, which can lead to physical harm, reproductive problems, toxicity issues and problems with food chains.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned the Sky ocean rescue campaign for marine plastics. As a coastal MP I am pleased that Sky has moved away from the rainforest and is now focusing on the ocean. We do not have to walk far in Cornwall to find plastics on our beaches. I recently did a beach clean in North Cornwall. I went out with a group of about 12 or 15 people, and we collected 18 bags of plastic in an hour and a half. The amount of plastic out there is phenomenal. As other hon. Members have said, much of that is not microplastics used recently, but plastic that has been broken down over a huge number of years. We need to tackle that issue.
I recently attended the Bude wave conference, which was attended by Surfers Against Sewage and various other environmental organisations. I was shown some of the nurdles that we have talked about today—plastics that are sometimes smaller than the sand particles that are already in the ocean. I take the issue very seriously, and as a rural and coastal MP I completely welcome any measure that takes plastic out of our oceans. Such action can be taken. Some people opposed Brexit on environmental grounds, but the Government can introduce environmental policy whether we are inside or outside the European Union, which is a very good thing.
On the subject of plastics entering the marine environment, I want to hear whether the Minister would welcome a fishing for plastic scheme. That has been encouraged in some parts of the country, but not uniformly. A fishing for litter scheme exists in Cornwall, and in some places in Wales. As we extricate ourselves from the European Union, we have an opportunity to emphasise that fishermen need to do their bit for the environment. I know that farmers have done so in the past through the common agricultural policy, but it might be time for us to show that our fishermen can do their bit as well.
The issue obviously concerns marine life, but does my hon. Friend agree that it concerns birds as well? I represent an estuarial constituency. The River Ribble has a lot of birdwatchers, and interesting bird life is affected by the plastics. The Preston Birdwatching and Natural History Society undertakes litter-picks on the Ribble. When I did one with it, I was astonished by the amount of plastics.
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Feeding birds not only get plastic caught around their necks, but when they ingest small marine life they take that into the food chain as well, so she is absolutely spot on.
I must say that I was not a big fan of the 5p charge on plastic bags when it was first announced, but I am a complete convert. Not only has it had a positive effect on coastal communities, but when we walk around towns now we do not see the bags that used to fly around in trees. It has made a real impact, so we can create positive change, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane said, if the Government are proactive.
If Brexit means that our fishing industry changes, I would ask that we consider a fishing for plastic scheme. It would be a great opportunity for us to show our country’s environmental credentials.
Numerous local authorities currently charge fishermen to land plastic that they find floating around in the ocean. Some local authorities have been quite proactive and have set up recycling plants. I think there is an economic benefit to that, not just an environmental one. There are organisations that could potentially reuse plastics that come out of the ocean. They can be used in carpets—I know they have been before. It would just entail fishermen picking up the stuff that they see floating around in the ocean, bringing it back and then receiving some sort of recompense. It might be through tax breaks, cash incentives, fishing quota, fuel, or a deposit return scheme. It could be a huge incentive.
I am pleased that DEFRA has launched the consultation. The order of priority at the moment should be reuse first, then recycling, and then the bin if those are not an option. Most of our local authorities seem to have got into the recycling process. There is a place for industry to step up, but the Government can intervene as well. I support the initiative and would welcome further exploration of how to encourage more positive behaviour.
I was keen to speak in the debate because this issue is one of those that exercise the mind of the public. I am sure that the hon. Members who are present have had many emails on the topic. When we discuss it, we cannot really understand why it has taken so long to act on it. What I like about such issues is the fact that there is a huge consensus across the House—quite a rare and beautiful thing. I commend the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for bringing the debate forward.
As we have heard, many cosmetic, personal care and toothpaste products contain microbeads, which are adding to the microplastic pollution made up of the fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic waste. It is estimated that 86 tonnes of microplastics are released into the environment each year in the UK from facial exfoliators alone. As we have heard, some cosmetics companies have voluntarily decided to phase them out, but there is not currently a legal requirement to do so. That is bewildering when we consider the damage that they do and the fact that adding plastic to products such as face washes and body scrubs is wholly unnecessary, as harmless alternatives can be used.
Last year the Environmental Audit Committee called for a ban on plastic microbeads and the UK Government have, thankfully, agreed to put a ban in place this year. The Scottish Government are also setting out a plan for legislation to regulate the use of microbeads in cosmetics, and are committed to working with the UK Government to implement the ban when it is introduced. The political agenda is, as we know, crowded with important issues at the moment, but issues as important as this must not be crowded out and forgotten or slide down the agenda. We must be extremely mindful of it.
As we have heard at length today, plastic microbeads contained in cosmetics damage the marine environment when they are literally washed down the drain and then ingested by marine life. The Environmental Audit Committee estimates that about 680 tonnes of plastic beads are used in the UK every year. Even though microbeads make up a small percentage of the microplastics entering the environment, they still constitute preventable environmental damage, which should not be trivialised. We do not need to cleanse ourselves by rubbing our skin with millions of small plastic particles. There is no societal benefit to doing so, but there is huge, irreversible environmental cost. There is a real fear that the particles are building up in the oceans and potentially entering the food chain, and that there will be irreversible damage to the environment, with billions of indigestible plastic pieces poisoning sea creatures.
Does the hon. Lady agree that just as in the 1980s and 1990s there were public and media campaigns about cosmetic testing on animals, which we all became aware of as young people—young women—there may be a role for the media in highlighting the present issue? A lot of people are just not aware of it.
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, although—this is anecdotal, not scientific—I think that the public are ahead of some of us in the House in their knowledge of the matter. Certainly my constituents have helped to educate me about it. However, it is right to say that the campaigns in the ’80s on animal testing were effective. Of course, the most important voice is that of the consumer; that is where spending power lies—the power of the pound.
Does the hon. Lady also agree that that campaign on animal testing came at a time when we knew that such things as adzuki beans, rice, salt and bromelain from pineapples were just as good as exfoliators as any microbeads? Even a hard flannel will do a reasonable job, so there is not much need for microbeads.
Again, the hon. Lady makes an excellent point. I think the most important point is that we live in a society in which consumers prefer natural ingredients anyway. That is a selling point for manufacturers to take on board. It is about not just getting rid of the plastics, although that is of course important, but fulfilling customers’ demand for the more natural ingredients they prefer.
Praise should be given to the many companies that are turning in that direction and taking notice of all the public interest. Some companies, such as Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have their own brands of cosmetics, which do not contain microplastics or microbeads. It is a good message, but I am not sure everyone has heard it yet.
The companies that are leading the way should be commended. It is a unique selling point for them from the point of view of the better-informed consumer, but of course there is still a job to do in making sure that all consumers have the information. I wish companies luck in getting the message out there. However, there is no legal requirement to move away from using microbeads, and that must still be an important part of the change we seek. I wish the companies that have voluntarily made the change all the best.
The wider problem of microplastics is vast. The United Nations joint group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection has listed the potential effects of microplastics on marine organisms. As we have already heard—that is one of the disadvantages of being so far down the speaking order—they include physical effects such as obstruction, chemical effects due to the transportation of toxic chemicals, impaired health, and impacts on populations and ecosystems, including many with important roles in food chains and the functioning of marine ecosystems. Microplastic pollution could be more damaging to the environment than larger pieces of plastic, because the size of the particles makes it more likely that they will be eaten by wildlife, and then there is potential for them to enter the food chain. I believe that the hon. Member for Taunton Deane said—and certainly marine scientists have said—that a plate of six oysters can contain up to 50 particles of plastic. That should make us pause for thought. More than 280 marine species have been found to have ingested microplastics, and the Environmental Audit Committee has said that much more research is needed on plastic pollution, because there is huge uncertainty about the ecological risk.
The Government can and should play a role on stopping the preventable use of microplastics in cosmetics. Last year the Scottish Government confirmed that they would legislate to regulate such use, following the announcement by DEFRA of the UK Government’s plans to work with the devolved Parliaments on a ban.
Will the ban that the hon. Lady is setting out largely apply only to cosmetic and personal care manufacturers in the United Kingdom, in a similar way to what is set out in the consultation for England? What worries me is how to monitor manufacturers outside the UK and the broader problem, because obviously we import quite a lot of the items in question.
Yes, and that situation will be further complicated by Brexit, when we are not working in a common area. There is a lot of work to do on where we are now, where we can move forward to and where we want to be, and, as the hon. Lady says, on how our trading relationships with other nations will change and how we monitor what comes into our country. Even though we know that plans are in motion and we know about the warm words and expectations, there is a lot of work for Members, consumers and environmentalists to do.
Work has been undertaken in Scotland to research this issue, raise awareness among consumers and encourage the use of alternatives. The point that the hon. Member for Taunton Deane made about natural alternatives is important, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), who has done a lot of work on this matter—much more than I have—but who unfortunately cannot attend the debate. He has been a great advocate of raising awareness of the problem and has been calling for action in this sphere.
Eight million tonnes of plastic will be dumped in the ocean this year and will take hundreds of years to degrade. An area of plastic rubbish three times the size of the entire United Kingdom has been floating in the north Pacific for decades. Every year thousands of turtles and other ocean creatures are killed by eating or becoming entangled in plastic debris. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) pointed out, when people go on litter-picks on beaches—as I and many others have—the problem of discarded plastic polluting our beaches, shorelines and seas is all too clear.
It makes sense to deal with this issue. Marine litter costs Scotland £16.8 million every year and has an impact on our environment, wildlife, industry and tourism. That understanding lies behind the Scottish Government’s marine litter strategy, which includes almost 40 new actions to minimise coastal and marine litter. Key to that has been, and must be, encouraging alternatives to plastic microbeads in personal care products. We know that the UK Government are committed to banning microbeads, and it is time to get on with that without further delay. This issue is like the ban on smoking in public places or the wearing of seatbelts: its time has come, there is great consensus on it, and once we have done it we will ask, “Why did it take us so long?”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to take part in this important debate. I thank the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) for securing it and for her comprehensive summary of the situation. It will come as no surprise that I spent an awful long time on my products this morning, although I cannot claim I was applying beauty products. I was trying to read the small print on the shampoo and toothpaste. I am still none the wiser about what is in them, but I am fairly certain that if nothing else, the product packaging can break down into microbeads.
We have had a very consensual, informative debate and have heard from a range of speakers. I will add the viewing recommendations made by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) to my weekend watch list. I am also interested in the suggestion by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) of a fishing for plastic solution. That needs to be looked into further and could be very useful.
It is fair to say that our debate may not be the biggest political attraction in the House today, but these tiny particles are a major issue—some estimates put the number in the world’s oceans as high as between 15 trillian and 51 trillion—and tackling them is of great importance. There is some debate about just how many there are—we do not really know. There is much that we do not know, if we are being honest. If we are to accurately quantify their impact and effectively monitor their presence in our seas, we need to learn a lot more about them.
There is no doubt that microbeads are doing preventable damage to our marine environment. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) told us, it is estimated that as much as 86 tonnes of microplastics are released into the environment every year in the UK from facial exfoliants alone. We should be grateful that some cosmetic companies have voluntarily decided to phase them out, but there is no legal requirement to do so. I therefore welcome the Government’s steps to bring forward a ban; it is constructive and helpful.
I am grateful for the work of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has called for a ban on microplastics, and for the UK Government accepting that recommendation and taking swift steps to initiate a ban later this year. The Scottish Government have confirmed that they will work with the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to implement the proposed ban on microbeads in personal care products. In Scotland we have already undertaken a fair amount of research, trying to raising awareness among consumers and encouraging the use of alternatives.
As my hon. Friend said, marine litter costs Scotland £16.8 million every year and has wide-ranging environmental impacts. The SNP Scottish Government have prioritised an action plan to protect Scotland’s marine environment, and in August 2014 we launched Scotland’s first ever marine litter strategy. “A Marine Litter Strategy for Scotland” details almost 40 new actions to minimise coastal and marine litter. A key action of the strategy is to encourage alternatives to plastic microbeads around the world, and the proposed ban would greatly facilitate that.
I should like to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally). He is unable to be with us today, but he has a great interest in this subject and it was through him that I first learned of microbeads. We have neighbouring constituencies that both suffer from microplastic pollution washed up along the shoreline of the River Forth. My hon. Friend, who also sits on the Environmental Audit Committee, recognises that the problem of microplastics goes beyond plastic scrub beads in cosmetics. He supports the campaign for a ban on microplastic ingredients in consumer products and for better measures to tackle plastic pollution as a whole. I share those views.
Towards those ends, my hon. Friend has been working with a Scottish charity called Fidra, which is working in tandem with Fauna & Flora International to eliminate microplastics from consumer products and prevent the loss of pre-production plastic pellets from the industry. He has helped them to promote a number of initiatives to help consumers to avoid plastic-containing down-the-drain products, as well as a citizen science project called “The Great Nurdle Hunt”, which tracks where plastic pellets lost from the industry end up.
Last year I took part in a nurdle hunt with Fidra on a visit to Kinneil in my constituency. It would be fair to say that I did not have to do much hunting, so rife was the problem. Sadly, that is not uncommon. A thousand pellets per square metre can be found on beaches around the Forth—I realise that I shall probably now not be on VisitScotland’s Christmas card for advertising that fact. I collected enough to fill a small jar very quickly. The hardest part was picking them up, but spotting them was incredibly easy. My new collection of pellets from the beach are clearly in various stages of weathering and have various colours. Many look fairly new or unweathered, which suggests that they have been spilt relatively recently. Not all are as historical as we might wish. All spills are avoidable, but unfortunately they are still happening.
All spills are not necessarily local either; they can occur around the globe and pellets can be transported long distances, highlighting the need for international co-operation to combat marine litter. It is perhaps of little surprise that Kinneil and neighbouring areas are hotspots for such pollution, with the large-scale manufacture of plastics locally and with so much transportation of goods by sea taking place in the vicinity.
Spills are accidental, of course, and are not an inevitable part of manufacture or freight transport. Operation Clean Sweep is a voluntary, industry-led scheme across the supply chain, which has support from a range of firms locally. Thanks to the work of Fidra, working with the local plastics and supply chain firms, around a third of firms in the area have signed up to the pledge. The companies pledge not to spill pellets into the wider environment and participants are provided with a handbook that suggests simple, low-costs measures to avoid doing that.
Welcome though that scheme is, its sign-up rate across the UK more widely is fairly low, with perhaps as little as 1% of companies taking part. It also lacks any external audit or reporting; consequently, the level of success or otherwise is unknown. I suggest that Ministers look at measures to enhance that voluntary approach and to require the industry to prove its effectiveness. I believe that legislation may be required to ensure that best practice is in place across the supply chain.
In conclusion, this is a global problem and it is vital that we all play our part in trying to resolve it. It is also vital, therefore, that the UK Government work with the devolved Administrations to ensure the effective implementation of the ban. We can all agree that this pollution needs to be tackled. To date, international co-ordination and most of the funding for research in the UK has been provided by the EU marine strategy framework directive. It would be good to hear the Minister provide further reassurances that that funding, research and international co-operation will continue after the UK leaves the EU.
In the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into the environmental impact of microplastics, it heard that environmental non-governmental organisations such as Flora & Fauna International have been left to lead efforts to monitor the presence of microbeads in consumer products. No statutory funding for that work is available, but the demand for it is increasing, leading to an unsustainable situation. What assurances can the Minister give us that funding will be available to provide the services required to enforce her proposed ban? Finally, although we welcome the action being taken by the UK Government, I would be grateful if the Minister looked at making the ban better by taking a consistent approach to the elimination of microplastics from all formulations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on securing this debate on such an important issue, which she obviously feels strongly about, and introducing it so clearly and passionately. I am sure that other hon. Members have received a lot of emails and letters about this issue, as I have. It is of genuine concern to our constituents, so I am really delighted that we had the opportunity to have this debate and hear so many important contributions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) both spoke about the 8 million tonnes of plastics that enter the oceans each year. My hon. Friend spoke about the wider issue of plastics breaking down into smaller and smaller parts in the water. She also made an interesting suggestion about the UN’s clean seas campaign, and I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about it. Is there an opportunity for the Government to work on a global scale? As a coastal MP, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) always speaks passionately about marine issues. He clearly feels strongly about the damage that is being done to the marine environment. He made an excellent speech.
I am concerned that the current Government policy has failed to provide the right framework to stop litter from reaching the sea in the first place, or at least to reduce the amount that gets there. As we have heard today, the huge amount of plastic in the sea is massively damaging to marine animals and the ecosystems in which they live. We heard the shocking statistic that 90% of birds have plastic in their stomach, and we heard from the hon. Member for Taunton Deane that there are serious concerns about microplastics entering the food chain and reaching humans.
We have to think about how we manage our resources, particularly plastics, whose disposal is so problematic. Biodegradable alternatives to microbeads are available, but they can be more expensive to produce, so they are not always so attractive to manufacturers. It is up to us as Members of Parliament to take action. The Labour party has long supported a ban on microbeads in cosmetics, so we warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to legislate for such a ban. I understand that the legislation is expected to come into force in October this year, that the ban on the manufacture of microbeads in cosmetics will apply from the beginning of 2018, and that the ban on sales is expected to apply from the end of June 2018.
The hon. Member for Taunton Deane made the good point that some manufacturers are already doing something about the problem—she listed some supermarkets. I give credit to some of the companies that have already taken voluntary action to take microbeads out of rinse-off products: Colgate-Palmolive, which phased them out all the way back in 2014; Unilever and Boots, which phased them out in 2015; and the L’Oréal group, which is currently phasing them out. Those big companies recognise the issue’s importance to consumers, so the Government really need to grab it with both hands. I must also draw attention to the campaign group Beat the Microbead, which provides details of companies that consumers can go to for products that are free from microbeads.
The Government have said that their plans to ban microbeads in cosmetics will
“create a level playing field for industry, tackle inconsistency and stop new products…from being sold in the UK.”
I firmly agree with that. The Opposition support and welcome the Government’s action so far.
We have heard details of what has happened in America, where President Obama signed an Act to outlaw the sale and distribution of toiletries that contain microbeads. Similar legislation is being planned in Canada. Studies have shown that the majority of the British public believe that we should follow those examples and ban the use of microbeads in toiletries. I hear that view regularly from my constituents.
As we know, the Government have consulted on a ban of microplastics for cosmetics and personal care products. We await the outcome of that consultation eagerly, but organisations such as Greenpeace have expressed concern that it does not cover all products that contain microplastic ingredients. The Government have also said that they will gather further evidence on the environmental impact of microbeads in other products before they go on to consider what can be done to tackle plastics such as microfibres, which also affect our environment, as we have heard.
We need to rethink how we manage our resources, so that we can make genuine progress on waste prevention and guide Britain towards a circular economy. That would be a significant step forward and would mean our having to move to a more resource-efficient economy. Will the Minister set out how the Government intend to meet their ambitious waste targets and therefore unlock the economic opportunities presented by greater resource efficiency? It would also be helpful if she gave an indication of when we are likely to see the 25-year plan.
I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has done some excellent work on the issue:
“Fish don’t care where the plastic they are eating comes from, so it’s vital the ban covers all microplastics in all down the drain products”,
which can end up in our oceans. Our marine life depends on our taking action and leading the way on this. A ban must cover all products that contain microplastics; we cannot be selective. Unless the ban is all-encompassing, it will not provide the protections that are needed for wildlife, and we will continue to cause real harm to our marine life and marine animals. I urge the Minister to listen to what hon. Members have said today and act now by introducing a complete ban.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who secured the debate, and all the hon. Members who have contributed to it.
Our decision to ban microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products was clearly signalled by the Minister of State in my Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), when he appeared before the Environmental Audit Committee last year. That decision has been confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and we are making good progress. The consultation on the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products closed last week, and we have already started assessing the responses. We are determined to continue to tackle plastic pollution in our seas and build on the success of the 5p plastic bag charge, particularly when suitable alternatives are already available.
Our understanding of marine litter and its impact is improving all the time. DEFRA funded some of the original research on microplastics and the harm that they can cause to marine organisms. The preliminary results of our latest assessment of marine litter in the UK suggest that although overall levels remain stable, the picture is mixed: the number of items of beach litter has decreased in some cases, such as plastic bags, but increased in others, such as bottle tops and caps and wet wipes.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) spoke about flushables; she will be pleased to know that I had a ministerial roundtable in November to facilitate dialogue between manufacturers, retailers and water industry representatives on how to reduce the non-biodegradable products getting into the sewer system. EDANA—the European disposables and non-wovens trade association—has since updated its code of practice on product labelling by moving the “do not flush” symbol to the front of the package for the type of wet wipes that are most at risk of being incorrectly flushed into the sewer. The impact of the plastic content of wet wipes is not known, but evidence is growing all the time and research is being undertaken.
I am afraid not. You have been very generous in the latitude that you have given to contributions today, Sir David, but since the title of the debate clearly refers to the proposed ban on microbeads, I intend to try to confine my remarks to that topic.
I acknowledge the efforts that the industry has taken to address the problem of microbeads. Several manufacturers and retailers have already stopped using microbeads in their products or have committed to do so, as has been outlined today. As the hon. Member for Bristol East said, the Government often encourage businesses to do the right thing and lead with a voluntary approach, but in this instance, given that alternatives are readily available, we seek a level playing field for industry and certainty for consumers. Specifically, the consultation proposed that we ban rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads, such as shower gels, face scrubs and toothpastes. That is because we know these products are washed down the drain, enter the sewer system and end up in the marine environment.
We did not include proposals about other sources of microbeads because we did not have sufficient evidence to support their inclusion. We do not take action to ban products lightly and any extension of the ban needs to be supported by clear and robust evidence. In particular, we must be certain that the products concerned contain microbeads and that if they do the microbeads end up in the marine environment. To address this issue, as part of our consultation we asked for evidence on other sources of microplastics and their environmental impact. If there is new evidence, we will use it to inform future actions to tackle microplastics.
The hon. Member for Bristol East referred to all sources of microplastics earlier, but we need to be careful in that regard. She may not realise quite how many products contain microplastics, including things such as certain blankets or even fleece jackets, which often involve a significant reuse of plastic bottles in the microfibers that are generated. Some people have already suggested—not here in this debate today, but elsewhere—that even the washing of a fleece jacket can contribute to microplastics going into the sewer system, but we need to be careful in considering the extent of any further ban. I know that it is a particular issue for vegans, who do not like to wear woollen fleece jackets, so we need to consider this issue carefully.
Regarding the international dimension, this is a transboundary problem and international co-operation is essential to address it. That is why we have played a leading role in developing the G7 nations’ action plan, as well as our role through OSPAR—the convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic—in developing and implementing a regional action plan. We hope that our action to ban microbeads will encourage other countries to take similar measures to ban them. Ireland has announced its own ban and we have already seen positive action from France and Italy. The US ban that has been talked about is yet to come into force, but I am sure that we will be able to learn from the US approach and what has happened there.
The UN’s clean seas campaign was also mentioned. As I said in response to a written parliamentary question recently, we are still considering whether to participate formally in that campaign. Nevertheless, I think we are doing our bit and our actions are contributing to efforts to reduce microbeads in the marine environment.
We are in the process of reviewing the responses to our consultation. One reason why it takes a certain amount of time to get from where we are today to the ban timeline is that we need to notify other EU member states of our proposals under the technical standards directive, and all other countries around the world under the technical barriers to trade agreement, which is part of the World Trade Organisation. In both cases the period of notification is three months, and we plan to run these processes concurrently. Then there will be a short consultation on the actual statutory instrument that we intend to introduce. We will lay the legislation before both Houses by the summer, with the aim of introducing the legislation in the autumn. Our expectation is that we will ban the manufacture of microbeads from the start of 2018 and ban the sale of products containing them from July 2018. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) asked about imported products containing microbeads; the ban will cover such products. As I say, the sale of these products will be banned from July 2018.
It was a pleasure to hear from the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), who talked about how important this issue is around the United Kingdom, including in Scotland of course. The consultation on proposals to ban microbeads was a joint consultation agreed with the devolved Administrations. As a consequence, we intend to end up with a UK-wide ban, but the hon. Members will be aware that each Administration will have to introduce their own legislation, according to their own processes and timetables, to bring such a ban into effect. I have already outlined the timescale that we propose, but we intend to try to co-ordinate our approach with the devolved Administrations.
I had quite an extensive conversation this morning on this issue of microbeads, as it is an interesting topic. The proposed ban will include other industrial hand-cleaning products, and there was discussion in the debate about cleaning products more generally. The UK Cleaning Products Industry Association has assured us that none of the products made by the UK companies it represents contain microbeads. However, hand-cleaning products—things such as Swarfega, which is well-known around the country—will be included within the scope of this ban.
As to how water companies and the Environment Agency can address the issue of microplastics, there is a bit of a challenge regarding the size of the microbeads and what happens with our current filtration systems. The risk that I have been made aware of is that even if we try to filter more, we will still end up with sewage sludge that has to be disposed of. Nevertheless, as part of the enhanced chemicals programme, the Environment Agency will look further at the contribution of sewage treatment to the spread of microplastics. As with many chemicals, the most effective solution is to reduce the amount of plastic getting in to the sewers in the first place. The ongoing campaigns about what should be flushed and what should be disposed of in other ways will help with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane talked about potential threats to fish and humans. I assure her that, on the basis of the current information, the Food Standards Agency considers that it is unlikely that the presence of low levels of microplastic particles that have been reported to occur in certain types of seafood would actually cause any harm to consumers. However, the FSA will continue to monitor and assess emerging information regarding that issue.
As for a wider discussion about fishing for plastic and other elements, I have referred to it in the House. Lord Gardiner is the owner of the litter strategy that we hope will be produced soon, and I am sure there will be further items that the House will want to look out for at that point.
I have already said that we have undertaken some research, which was some of the original research done on microplastics. Of course, other organisations will continue to carry out such research in the future. We asked for further evidence from organisations that would like our ban to go further. We will look carefully at what is presented as a result of the consultation and it will inform our future actions to tackle this issue.
Our action on microbeads is a further demonstration of our commitment to tackle microbeads and microplastics in the marine environment. The approach we have taken is based on clear evidence and as a result has the support of a wide range of stakeholders. We believe that Government, industry and communities need to work together to address this issue, based on the evidence. We look forward to working with stakeholders to take further action to protect our marine environment.
I particularly thank you, Sir David, for chairing us so amiably, and for welcoming the ladies who were having their photographs taken earlier and allowing them to intervene during the debate. Thank you for that.
We have come up with a new hobby this afternoon, which I will be going away to practise—fishing for plastics. That is a very good idea.
I thank all the hon. Members who have taken part in a fascinating debate. What is so welcome and heartening is that there has been so much sharing of knowledge and experience; I think you will agree, Sir David, that there has been much consensus.
I thank the Minister for her very honest comments and for sharing a lot of detail with us about how the ban will be handled. That is much appreciated. Indeed, the fact that there will be a ban is much appreciated. That will level out the playing field for manufacturers. I think all colleagues and Members are behind that ban and welcome it.
We would like to be world leaders in this area and to operate on a global stage. It is really important that we fully understand the evidence. We will press forward with the initial ideas for bans in the cosmetics and personal care products industries, but it is very important that we have the right evidence when we consider widening out the ban to cover any other plastics; I fully agree with that. We have wide support for the ban. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, and I say to the Minister, who I personally am right behind, “Let’s press on.” There is more that we can do on the wider plastic issue, but I think there is plenty of support for action.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the proposed ban on microbeads.