Damage from plastic microbeads in cosmetics, this week banned by Environment Minister Nick Smith, pales by comparison to the trillions of plastic particles less than 5mm in size from single-use bags, bottles and food packaging. It's time to take far-reaching action.

I'm glad we finally moved towards banning microbeads, it's been great for the nation to have this conversation, late or not, writes Michelle Dickinson.

This week our Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith, announced moves to ban cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads from July next year.

The research is clear - these tiny beads can pass through our wastewater treatment facilities and have a negative effect on our ecosystem and waterways.

Studies on larval perch show they favour eating microplastic particles rather than their natural plankton food source, resulting in the fish starving before they can reproduce.


The tiny plastic beads have also been shown to act like magnets, attracting pollutants in the water - pollutants which are then absorbed by fish when they consume the beads. Researchers found that up to 12.5 per cent of these pollutants are absorbed into their tissues, potentially contaminating our food chain and affecting our seafood export market.

Our proposed law change is a positive step. It is important to note though that many other countries - including the US, Canada and the UK - have already banned microbeads, and manufacturers are already changing their ingredients list in response.

By the time our new law comes into effect, most cosmetics are unlikely to contain microbeads anyway. Rather than be a proactive leader, our Government was a latecomer to this party.

Globally more than 10,000 tonnes of plastic microbeads are used every year. That sounds like a huge number - until you compare it with the 300 million tonnes of other plastics produced each year.

A recent study in the journal Science estimated that eight million tonnes of plastic waste enters our oceans from the land each year.

Much of this comes from single-use bags, bottles and food packaging - these deteriorate over time through sun exposure, mechanical wave action, physical abrasion and shredding or biting by sea creatures.

This weathering and disintegration leads to a slow decrease in the size of the plastic pieces, eventually grinding them down to micro-plastics - particles less than 5mm in size.

These pieces are the same size as microbeads, and the consequences of their presence in the oceans are the same - yet we have no legislation proposed to reduce this environmental hazard.

A study in the journal Environmental Research Letters estimated that the accumulated number of microplastic particles in 2014 ranges from 15 to 51 trillion particles, making plastic consumer waste a much bigger problem than the microbead issue.

As we seem to follow where others lead, it's worth looking at what other countries are doing. The EU has introduced a new law designed to reduce single-use plastic bag consumption by 80 per cent in the next 15 years, with EU member countries implementing policies to reduce bag use per person.

As an example, Ireland's 20c plastic bag levy resulted in a 90 per cent reduction from 328 bags per person to just 21 within five months of its introduction. All of the levies collected were funnelled into Ireland's Environment Fund to support waste management, litter and other environmental initiatives.

Last year France passed a law banning all plastic plates, cups and utensils by 2020 with replacements required to be made from compostable, biologically sourced materials.

This law followed France's total ban on plastic shopping bags as part of the country's Energy Transition for Green Growth Act - a plan to make France a world leader in adopting more environmentally friendly practices, and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

I'm glad we finally moved towards banning microbeads, it's been great for the nation to have this conversation, late or not.

Wouldn't it be amazing if our next environmental legislation change around plastic consumption and disposal was so impactful that others around the world could look to us for inspiration?