Chief executive’s view: Michael Roberts, Water UK

Water companies will be at the heart of efforts to help reduce pollution from microplastics.

The environment secretary Andrea Leadsom recently announced plans to ban microbeads in cosmetic and cleaning products in the UK by 2017. This followed a report by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) highlighting the damaging impact they can have on the marine environment.

Although some cosmetic companies have previously made voluntary commitments to phase out the use of microbeads by 2020, we’re pleased to see the government taking a decisive lead on an issue of such environmental importance.

These tiny plastic beads are found in a variety of products, from shower gels to toothpaste. If you’re using these products, you might not even notice the plastics inside them as some are less than a millimetre wide. They are so small that they can often travel into the sea after passing through filters at water treatment works.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s report last month recommended that microplastics should be monitored and tackled at source. The Committee clearly took on board our evidence that separating the plastics from organic content in ­wastewater would require significant ­levels of further investment into ­additional filtration systems.

According to this report, an estimated 680 tonnes of plastic microbeads are used in the UK every year. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the sewage system. Many consumers would be extremely unhappy to learn of the damaging impact that the products they are using have on the marine environment.

Microbeads are made of non-biodegradable plastic, so do not break down in water, leading to a build-up in oceans around the world. Evidence has shown that marine life at the bottom of the food chain, such as mussels and shrimps, are ingesting the plastic. This research suggests that this has wider implications across the food chain.

The environment remains a key area of importance for UK water companies, and Water UK has been a strong supporter and partner of the Marine Conservation Society’s ‘scrub it out’ campaign, which has pushed for a microplastics ban of this kind.

Returning clean water to the environment is at the heart of what water companies do and they will continue to work hard to maintain the quality of the nation’s waters. The EAC report made the recommendation that the industry should continue to engage with the government and Environment Agency and we look forward to doing so to help reduce microplastics pollution.