The research is more of a first step than a guarantee, with DEFRA telling ENDS that the commissioning of research is "standard in the development of any policy", and "does not necessarily mean that any of the risk management options analysed will become government policy".
Last week inews published an exclusive article with the headline “Harmful microplastics in products such as toothpaste, shampoo and washing-up liquid face UK ban”, and said it had seen DEFRA documents showing a total or partial ban on their use is being considered.
It said a project, commissioned by DEFRA, would “assess the cost of placing a total or partial ban on the use of intentionally added microplastics in the UK, including reformulation and raw material costs to industry”.
Information on this project was published in a tender notice on the Bidstats website, with DEFRA stating it is looking for a company to research the risks of microplastics.
According to the notice, which was published on 17 August 2023, this tender is set to last for one month, with the deadline marked as 18 September this year.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a full ban is on the horizon.
The project description notes that it "aims to improve our understanding of the potential socioeconomic, environmental and human health impacts of intentionally added microplastics in the UK".
It adds that the project will "consider the impacts of some different potential policy actions, including placing controls on emissions of intentionally added microplastics".
Amongst the factors to be considered are the impact of microplastics on the environment, estimates of quantity, the physical and chemical mechanisms of the pollution, the estimates of costs to businesses to find alternatives, and the human health costs.
The UK already has a ban on microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics and cleaning products, however this was implemented five years ago, and the tender document notes that there is "currently limited legislation to control other sources".
DEFRA also told ENDS that the commissioning of research is "standard in the development of any policy", and "does not necessarily mean that any of the risk management options analysed will become government policy".
DEFRA’s intention to commission research into the impacts of microplastics on the environment and human health was first announced last year, and published in the Health and Safety Executive’s 2022/2023 work programme for UK REACH, which is the legislation used to regulate chemicals since Brexit.
The agency noted that intentionally added microplastics in substances, mixtures and articles would be considered as a priority for investigation and that the results of DEFRA’s evidence project “will be used to inform the government’s approach to managing intentionally added microplastics, whether through UK REACH or an alternative route.”
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Earlier this year, the government announced in its Plan for Water that it would be looking to implement a ban on plastic in wet wipes, however DEFRA first consulted on this in 2021 and a timeline on the ban has yet to be given.
Jo Royle, chief executive and co-founder of the international social enterprise, Common Seas, said that the tender going out shows “progress might finally be made” but that a decision is “long overdue”.
She noted how in Europe restrictions on microplastics intentionally added to products are set to enter law, whilst “ministers here are still stuck in the discussion phase”.
She continued: “Ahead of the third round of negotiations for a legally binding Global Plastic Treaty in Nairobi this Autumn, the UK should lead by example and demonstrate firm action against the plastic problem. It is time to move forward with a robust policy to protect humans and the planet's health with a complete ban on harmful microplastics.”
Anna Watson, director of policy and advocacy at CHEM Trust, said: “We don’t need time-wasting evidence reviews and analysis, the EU has already carried these out and presented the evidence on why a ban is needed.
“Nothing less than an urgent, total ban of intentionally added microplastics in the UK is acceptable to protect our health, the health of future generations and nature from this pollution crisis".
A DEFRA spokesperson said: "The UK is already a global leader in combating plastic waste and we have taken major steps to tackle plastic pollution, including microplastics. We are also joining other high ambition countries in supporting the development of a new international legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution, which includes pushing for global action to address microplastic pollution.
"More widely, we have also restricted the supply of several single-use plastic items and introduced a world leading plastic packaging tax that is stopping microplastics at their source."