Sweden steps up fight against microplastics

Sweden’s red-green government is going ahead with a ban on the sale of microplastics in cosmetics because of their harmful environmental impact. The country is considering further bans. André Anwar reports from Stockholm.

As of 1 July 2018, no new personal care products sold in Sweden may contain microplastics. (Image credit: MPCA Photos via Flickr)

You have to suffer to be beautiful, or so the saying goes. But why should the environment also have to suffer?

It’s currently in fashion for cosmetic products to contain tiny plastic particles, meant to cleanse, scrub or polish our skin. But when rinsed off, these microplastic particles end up in the sewage system and enter our rivers and oceans, where they are then ingested by marine animals and ultimately end up on our plates.

Tiny plastic waste has become a massive problem worldwide.

Government won’t wait for EU

The red-green government in Stockholm felt that it was waiting too long for a likely EU-wide ban on cosmetics with plastic particles, so it went ahead and adopted a ban on its own.

From 1 July onwards, no new cosmetic products containing plastic particles may be sold in Sweden. Products already purchased by retailers can be sold until the end of 2018. The ban applies to toothpaste, face and body creams, shaving cream, shampoo, shower gels, soap and cleansing agents – anything that can be washed off the body or rinsed out of the mouth and into the water system.

‘Completely unnecessary’

“Its mad to add plastic particles to products, no matter the product involved. We know that sewage treatment plants cannot filter them out and this is why they end up in our oceans,” said the environment minister Karolina Skog.

There’s no question that natural substitutes exist that producers could use instead of microplastics, which is why Skog calls microplastics “completely unnecessary”.

Marine animals ingest microplastics

Microplastics include all plastic particles smaller than 5 millimetres. One reason they are so controversial is that their small size allows them to be easily ingested by marine animals and then end up in the food chain.

All organisms in the ocean ingest microplastics: they have been found in muscles, worms, fish, seabirds and even plankton, according to a study by the German environmental protection organization BUND.

A separate study by the German Federal Environment Agency in 2016 came to the conclusion that microplastics interfere with cellular function in humans.

Sweden considering further bans

Microplastics from cosmetic products only accounts for a small proportion of global water pollution, which is why Sweden’s chemicals authority is now investigating if other products should also be banned.

A major source of microplastic waste comes from vehicle traffic, especially rubber particles from tyres, according to the Swedish Nature Conservation Agency. In Sweden, 7,674 tonnes of microplastic are produced each year as a result of tyre wear.

Another major source is artificial grass, and Stockholm is currently looking into how this can also be reduced. The government has also approved an additional 1.7 million euros per year for the coastal region of Bohuslän in western Sweden, where ocean currents are washing up a large amount of waste from the North Atlantic. Eighty-five per cent of this is plastic.

Several other countries have already banned microplastics in personal care products, including the UK and Canada.

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