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Cosmetics giants lukewarm on potential UK microplastics ban

Products - Face scrub microbeads© Voyagerix -

Unilever science director, Ian Malcomber, has said that his company hopes a ban on microplastics in cosmetics products in the UK “is not required”, and that his company prefers “industry-led action” through trade associations.

Mr Malcomber joined experts from L’Oréal and Procter & Gamble to give their views at the latest meeting of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee inquiry, which was launched in April.

“We hope that industry takes responsibility and I would encourage members of Cosmetics Europe, and other national associations, to take action to phase out as soon as possible and not wait for the 2020 deadline,” he told the committee. Unilever embarked on a phase-out project in 2012, which it completed at the end of 2014.

Patrick Masscheleyn, an R&D director at Procter & Gamble, said his company does not oppose a UK ban, as its cosmetics products will be free of microbeads by October 2016. But “if a ban is needed, we would prefer a global ban.”

L’Oréal’s research director, Laurent Gilbert, said that, “by mid-2017 at the latest”, the company will no longer manufacture products with formulations containing microbeads.  

Committee chair, Mary Creagh, said a national ban in the UK ensures “consistency of approach”, but she added that the country’s Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association said companies could be “undercut by rivals who do not take action or from imports outside the EU that don’t conform to regulations or adhere to a voluntary ban”.

One MP asked if L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble and Unilever would be willing to work with policy makers to formulate “the right sort of ban” if it becomes clear that other companies, especially SMEs which are not as “advanced” in their R&D as larger companies, are unable to meet the voluntary phase-out deadline.

Dr Masscheleyn replied: “Yes and we have knowledge we are happy to share if needed.”

Mr Malcomber said that Cosmetic Europe’s survey of use and volume will give “a good indication as to how the wider industry is progressing around the phase-out”.

He added that the results of the survey, currently being conducted, should be available later this year. “If the UK government decides to legislate in this area, we would be more than happy to work with [them] in formulating appropriate measures.”

Earlier this year, Denmark called for a Europe-wide ban on the use of microplastics in cosmetics. If such a ban was adopted, but the UK left the EU, products containing microbeads might still be legal in the UK unless a national ban was also introduced. 

‘Problematic’ alternatives?

Cosmetics companies have used hydrated silica, general minerals such as salt, and nut and fruit kernels and powders as alternatives to microplastics.

“Hydrated silica has the same chemical identity as sand, which is inert,” Dr Masscheleyn told the inquiry. “It means adding more sand into the sewage treatment system, which is then put back as a natural material into the environment.”

Ms Creagh raised concerns about replacing 680 tonnes a year of plastic with a substance that has similar properties to sand and whether water companies can deal with this much more ‘sand’ in the UK’s largely Victorian sewer network. She added: “You make it, then you make it someone else’s problem”.

Dr Masscheleyn responded that there is a “general acceptance” of silica for this purpose and the company has not spoken to water treatment companies.

Dr Gilbert said L’Oréal is discussing the issues with sewage companies in France, to determine the potential consequences of extra silica and other added ‘natural’ cosmetics materials in the sewage system.

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