Microplastics are small plastic particles (less than 1 mm) which are contaminating the marine environment.

Exeter marine plastics expert to advise parliamentary select committee

A University of Exeter expert on marine pollution will be giving advice to a cross-party committee of MPs at the Palace of Westminster in London today (Monday).

Professor Tamara Galloway, an eco-toxicologist in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, has been asked to provide oral evidence to the UK Environmental Audit Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into the environmental impact of microplastics. It comes amid growing pressure from the public and environmental campaigning organisations, such as Greenpeace UK, who are urging the Government to ban the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics.

The 15-strong select committee, which includes the Green MP Caroline Lucas and the Conservative London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith, is looking into the scale, sources and consequences of microplastic pollution in the ocean and strategies for dealing with the problem.

Microplastics are small plastic particles (less than 1 mm) which are contaminating the marine environment and awareness of the biological damage they cause is still in its infancy.

Professor Galloway, whose research focuses on marine pollution, the human health effects of pollutants and the sustainable development of novel materials and substances, will be giving evidence alongside Dr Erik Van Sebille from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Imperial College and Professor Frank Kelly, Professor of Environmental Health and Deputy Director of the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health, King’s College London.

Speaking ahead of the committee meeting, Professor Galloway said: “We are studying how microscopic plastic litter is taken up by different kinds of marine animals with their food or across their gills. We are starting to find out through our research how these microplastics may have a harmful effect on marine wildlife all over the world. What we don’t know as yet is the impact they may have on human health as they are passed through the food chain.

“It is imperative that we learn more about the volume of microplastics that are entering the food chain, so we can help policymakers make an informed, and ultimately correct, decision."

A petition by Greenpeace UK, calling on the UK to follow the US in preventing the use of micro plastics in cosmetics, has attracted more than 300,000 signatures after being launched earlier this year.

The US bill, signed by President Barack Obama last year, outlaws the sale and distribution of toothpaste and exfoliating or cleansing products containing microbeads by mid-2019. Environment ministers from Sweden, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg called on the EU to ban microplastics in cosmetics and detergents in December 2014. Italy also backed the idea, which was first proposed by the Netherlands in 2013.

Other countries, including the UK, favoured a non-legislative approach. However, on Thursday, environment minister Rory Stewart told MPs that the UK could follow suit if the EU fails to get a blanket ban.

The remit of the Environmental Audit Committee is to consider the extent to which the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development, and to audit their performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets. Unlike most select committees, the Committee’s remit cuts across government rather than focuses on the work of a particular department.

Date: 9 May 2016

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