The UK ban on using plastic micro beads in cosmetics which came into effect on January 9 highlights the need for a more effective EU-wide response to the problem of waste plastic in the sea, says Dr Peter Heffernan, Marine Institute chief executive.

2018 plastic pollution

Plastics washed onto a beach on the west coast of Denmark (Photo KIMO); a handful of micro plastics on Hawaii (Photo Plastic Change)

Micro beads are tiny plastic circles the size of a grain of sand, and marine scientists are increasingly worried that ocean wildlife is being harmed through consumption.

Speaking on RTE Radio 1 Morning Ireland, Dr Heffernan added that the key risk was their potential to get into the food chain.

“Something that small can be eaten by microorganisms at the base of the food chain in the ocean, eventually ending up in products that humans can eat — the fish we love,” he said.

“We’re at a very early stage globally in understanding the scale of that risk and the pathways of the plastic into the food chain. Ireland has been very quick off the ground with research, both locally in Galway Bay, off the Continental Shelf and in the very deep continental waters.”

Scale of dumping

Describing the scale of the challenge ahead, Dr Heffernan said that “every minute of every day around the globe a truck load of plastic is dumped into the ocean; that’s eight million tonnes of plastic waste a year. “If that continues and if humans do not change behavior and stop it at source, by 2050 it’s estimated that the weight of plastic in the oceans will be more than the weight of fish,” he warned.

“From space, the scale of plastic pollution in the ocean can look like islands in parts of the Pacific. We have got to change human behaviour and change manufacturing and industrial behaviour. We have personal choice in this: we can choose not to use single-use plastics; we can choose to identify where products contain micro beads and decide at a personal level not to use them. That’s a very powerful signal to the market.”

As to the possibility that legislation introduced last week in the UK might soon be introduced here, Dr Heffernan confirmed that at a major oceans conference in Malta last October, the Irish government announced it would introduce a ban on the manufacture and sale of products containing plastic micro beads before the end of 2018.

“There’s a massive awareness in the world about the dangers of plastics and I think the younger generation are already ahead of many adults in knowing the risk and are already identifying themselves that they don’t want to use these products,” Dr Heffernan concluded.