Japan is lagging behind growing international moves to restrict microbeads, the tiny synthetic particles that have become a major source of pollution in the world’s oceans.
Last year, the U.S. government enacted a law prohibiting the use of microbeads in cosmetic products and toothpastes, while the British government has pledged to phase out their use by the end of 2017.
In France, a law banning circulation of cosmetic products and shampoos with microbeads was promulgated in August, with major cosmetics maker L’Oreal beginning to develop products with natural alternatives such as mineral powder and fruit seeds, according to a report in the online edition of Marie Claire, a magazine for women.
These measures are important steps to prevent marine pollution, but Japan has not made any substantial moves to legally restrict the waste source.
“In order to restrict (microbeads), we will first have to research and investigate the matter,” an official at the Environment Ministry in Tokyo said.
Microplastic particles primarily come from waste such as plastic bags and plastic bottles that break down to less than 5 mm in size by waves and ultraviolet light. Microbeads are believed to account for about 10 percent of microplastic waste.
Plastics often contain hazardous chemicals that concentrate in fish and birds that mistakenly eat them, generating concern that humans could be affected.
Atsuhiko Isobe, a professor at the Research Institute for Applied Mechanics at Kyushu University, said problems posed by microbeads cannot be ignored.
“It is impossible to completely do away with plastics. So we have to form a consensus among citizens not to use products that won’t be recycled,” he said.
Global consumption of plastics has been increasing, with output reaching over 300 million tons in 2014.
Waste plastic is found in virtually all the world’s waterways, including the Antarctic Ocean.
According to the World Economic Forum, at least 8 million tons of plastics find their way into oceans every year, and if no significant measures are taken the amount could exceed that of fish by weight by 2050.