Natural products such as apricot kernels, beeswax and bio-based and biodegradable polymers could be used instead of conventional plastics in cosmetic products to cut down on marine litter according to a study carried out by the nova-Institute.

The study was commissioned by the German Federal Environment Agency after scientific studies showed that litter in oceans and inland waters is dominated by plastics. The occurrence of microplastics has also been verified in water bodies, sediments and on beaches.

Sources of microplastics relevant to marine protection in Germany’ sought to approximate the amounts of microplastics on the market in Germany and the European Union, conduct research into further areas of application for microplastics and determine their amounts of use, and identify other sources of microplastics and estimate their quantity.

The study suggests that each year between six and 10 per cent of global plastics production ends up as marine litter. For Europe, this is equivalent to 3.4 to 5.7 million tonnes of plastics that are a source of microplastics.

It draws a distinction between primary and secondary microplastics: primary microplastics are directly manufactured as microscopic particles that are used in cosmetics and other applications, while secondary microplastics are fragments of macroscopic plastic materials that arise through the fragmentation of items like plastic bottles or abrasion of tyres and textiles.

The study found that in Germany every year approximately 500 tonnes of primary microplastics are used in cosmetic products and 100 tonnes per year are used each in detergents, disinfectants and blasting agents.

In addition, it estimates that between 60,000 and 110,000 tonnes of microplastics can arise due to tyre abrasion.

nova-Institute concluded that manufacturers of cosmetics do not need to use the long-lasting microparticles from conventional plastics in their products, with natural products including apricot kernels, beeswax, rice wax, bio-based and biodegradable polymers suitable as substitutes.

Furthermore, the plastics industry, it says, could help solve the problem with efficient processes and reinforced product responsibility.

Roland Essel, author of the study, said: “We are not only creating great challenges for the environment but also for future generations, since we do not know enough either about input paths and transport mechanisms of microplastics nor about direct and indirect consequences of their littering. Besides basic research, we have to make an effort and find solutions to limit plastic input in the environment.”

Ocean plastic problems

In the UK, a number of retailers, including Boots, the Co-operative and Asda, have pledged to phase out plastic microbeads from own-brand cosmetic and beauty products, according to the Beat the Microbead website.

The problem of oceanic plastic extends beyond microplastics, though, with two United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports from last year finding that the amount of plastic waste that has entered marine ecostystems costs US$13 billion (£7.7 billion) in damage annually. Andrew Russell Director of the Plastic Disclosure Project, said: “Companies need to consider their plastic footprint, just as they do for carbon, water and forestry.”

Although efforts to clean oceanic gyres of the plastic that tends to accumulate in them have often been deemed impossible, The Ocean Cleanup is set to launch the ‘world’s first’ ocean clean-up system next year off the coast of Tsushima Island in the Korea Strait. It does not, however, expect to be able to capture microplastics.

Download the nova-Institute study.