From the shallowest coastal waters to the depths of the oceanic trenches some 10,000 meters beneath the sea, our oceans are home to a vast amount of life on earth. Covering over two-thirds of the world’s surface, they provide food and support tourism and leisure in every part of the world.
Our oceans are under pressure from warming and acidification, and on World Oceans Day, the environmental audit committee, which I chair, will be hearing about microplastic pollution.
Microplastics are small abrasive beads which wash down the drain. They are found in facial scrubs, toothpastes, washing powders, household cleaners, and the fibres of clothes made from synthetic materials. Did you know that washing a fleece can release 1m microfibres, which go down the drain, pass through filters and into the sea?
It is estimated that up to 8,000 tonnes of microbeads from cosmetics products wash into the sea from Europe every year. They accumulate there, and are eaten by fish, shellfish and other marine life. As a result, over a third of fish in the English Channel are now contaminated with microplastic particles. And they could end up on our dinner plates. Scientists estimate if you’ve eaten six oysters then you have probably eaten around 50 particles of microplastics. And we have no real idea what impact this could have on human health.
The impact of microplastics on fish are better understood. Microplastics accumulate in the stomachs of fish, harming their ability to digest food and stunting growth. They are harmful to the tiny creatures that fish eat. And the costs to our fishing industry are totting up, costing an estimated £2.2m per year to the UK’s shellfish industry. They also affect seabirds. Studies have shown that 80% of seabird species eat them, and that a typical seabird carries up to 10% of its bodyweight in plastic in its stomach.
One suggested solution is to improve filtration systems in our water treatment plants, although no system is perfect, and we would have to dispose of a microplastic-filled waste sludge.
President Obama recently passed a law banning the use of microplastic beads in cosmetic products in the US. Canada has also banned them, and the Netherlands is in the process of introducing a ban. Representatives of the cosmetics industry have said they want an industry-wide voluntary phase-out by 2020. We invited Proctor & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser, L’Oreal, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson, but not one of them accepted the committee’s invitation to give evidence, which in itself speaks volumes.
The invention of plastic has revolutionised so much in our lives, and we find it everywhere from paperclips to spaceships. But its durability and versatility make it a difficult waste product to manage. We must become a more resource-efficient society, re-using, recycling and remanufacturing as much of our plastic waste as possible. That is the thinking behind the EU’s ‘circular economy package’, which is under discussion in Brussels.
The theme of this year’s World Oceans Day is ‘healthy oceans, healthy planet’. Aside from the wildlife that lives within and around our oceans, people all over the world depend on them for their lives and livelihoods. As an island nation we should take the problem of microplastic pollution seriously. But microplastic pollution does not respect borders, and we need to find solutions by working with our neighbours and partners in Europe, which is another reason for us to vote remain in the EU on 23 June.
This article was first published by the Guardian on 8 June 2016.