The UK government outlawed the manufacture of products containing microbeads on Tuesday in what it says is one of the world's toughest bans on the tiny plastic particles.
The move comes amid a greater public awareness of the build-up of plastics in the world's oceans. Microbeads, which are found in a number of cosmetic products, have prompted their own concerns because of their impact on marine life -- they can enter the food chain for fish and other sea creatures, exposing them to toxic chemicals that can in turn end up on our plates.
UK Environment Minister Th-r-se Coffey called the "world-leading" ban an "important milestone" in a statement.
"Microbeads are entirely unnecessary when there are so many natural alternatives available," Coffey added.
A ban on the sale of products containing microbeads will take effect later this year.
The US, Canada and New Zealand are among the countries that have banned the use of microbeads in products. Sweden, Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium have issued a joint call to outlaw the tiny particles.
The ban was recommended by the UK Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee, which recently called for a tax on plastic-lined coffee cups and a deposit return program for plastic bottles, and wants to force producers to take more responsibility for their packaging.
"We are delighted that such a robust microbead ban has come into force," Sue Kinsey, senior pollution officer at the non-profit Marine Conservation Society, said in a statement.
"This is the strongest and most comprehensive ban to be enacted in the world and will help to stem the flow of microplastics into our oceans."
More than eight million tons of plastic end up in oceans each year, which means there could be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050 and almost all seabirds will have ingested it, the United Nations' Environment Programme has warned.
In July, China announced it intended to ban the import of many kinds of foreign waste by the end of 2017. The move led to fears among environmental and industry groups that mountains of plastic waste would pile up as Britain's recycling infrastructure became stretched to its limits.
In December, 193 countries signed a UN resolution to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea, which calls for nations to take action to reduce the use of microbeads.
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