The government should urgently impose a ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics, MPs have insisted.

A report published yesterday (24 August) by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee, said the government should move quickly to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetics by the end of 2017 and should work towards “a systematic strategy for researching and mitigating sources of microplastic pollution”.

The prevalence of microplastics in marine environments - be they from microbeads in cosmetics or from the wider problem of the fragmentation of larger pieces of plastic waste or small synthetic fibres from clothing - was potentially more environmentally damaging than larger pieces of plastic on marine environments, the Committee said, because the tiny fragments of plastic were more likely to be eaten by fish and other sealife.

Microplastics also had a greater surface area with which to transfer chemicals to and from the marine environment, the report added, with the Committee pointing out the use of microbeads was “a significant and avoidable part of the problem”, with about 86 tonnes of microplastics being released into the environment every year in the UK from facial exfoliants alone.

“Trillions of tiny pieces of plastic are accumulating in the world’s oceans, lakes and estuaries, harming marine life and entering the food chain,” said Committee chairman Mary Creagh MP. “The microbeads in scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes are an avoidable part of this plastic pollution problem. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean.”

Most large cosmetics companies have made voluntary commitments to phase out microbeads by 2020, while Waitrose announced it would stop selling all branded cosmetic products containing microbeads in June.

However, the Committee found that a legislative ban would have advantages for consumers and the industry in terms of “consistency, universality and confidence”, with Creagh calling for a “full legal ban, preferably at international level as pollution does not respect borders”.

Between 80,000 & 219,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the marine environment across Europe per year, the Committee said, and it was estimated that between 15 and 51 trillion microplastic particles had accumulated in the ocean.

The cosmetics industry was also failing to label products containing microbeads clearly, the report added. “If the government fails to introduce a ban, the Committee is calling on it to introduce a clear labelling scheme for microbeads during the transitional period of a voluntary phase-out to provide transparency for customers,” it added.

Defra said it would “take a detailed look at the recommendations contained in this timely report”.

The Committee’s calls were echoed today by Greenpeace, which has collated academic research from around the world for a report that revealed various examples of significant contamination of fish with microplastics caught globally, including a field sample that found 36.5% of fish caught by a trawler in the English Channel in 2013 contained synthetic polymers.

“As more and more research shows that microplastics can harm marine life and even end up on our dinner plates, a ban on microbeads is a simple way for Theresa May’s government to show it takes the effects of plastic pollution on marine life and human health seriously,” Greenpeace campaigner Louise Edge said.