Washing Machines: Microplastics

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs written question – answered at on 15 May 2023.

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Photo of Alberto Costa Alberto Costa Conservative, South Leicestershire

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what progress she has made on encouraging industry to (a) develop and (b) use low-cost microfibre washing machine filters.

Photo of Alberto Costa Alberto Costa Conservative, South Leicestershire

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, with reference to her Department's policy paper entitled Plan for Water: our integrated plan for delivering clean and plentiful water, published in April 2023, what progress her Department has made on reducing the levels of microplastics in rivers and oceans.

Photo of Alberto Costa Alberto Costa Conservative, South Leicestershire

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what steps she plans to take to reduce microplastic pollution from water companies.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The United Kingdom is a world leader in tackling plastic pollution, including microplastics. Monitoring of marine litter by the Marine Conservation Society, funded by Defra, tells us that over the last seven years the total litter count on British beaches has decreased significantly - the total median litter count in 2021 was almost three times lower than in 2016.

We are continuing to contribute to the development of a new legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, that aims to end plastic pollution by 2040. We want to tackle microplastic pollution wherever possible which is why we introduced a microbead ban and a tax on plastic bags.

We recently announced in the Plan for Water that we will change the law to ban the sale of wet wipes containing plastic, subject to public consultation. We will also support the Water UK communications campaign to ‘Bin the Wipe’ and write to the relevant producers and advertising authorities regarding the labelling of wet wipes as ‘flushable’.

The Plan for Water also outlined our position that we will expect industry to develop low cost, effective microfibre filters on washing machine and encourage their effective use. With the plan being published only just last month, we are now considering the best actions for its implementation. As a first step, we will look to manufacturers to reduce costs and to provide appropriate evidence of the value of microfibre filters to persuade consumers to invest in them and use them correctly.

The UK Water Industry Research project (performed by UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology) reported in April 2022 that wastewater treatment plants remove 99% of microplastics by number and 99.5% by mass. The Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP) includes over £7.39 million of commitment from the water industry to further research microplastics removal through wastewater treatment processes to sludge, which may be a source of microplastics to final effluent discharges.

An additional investigation sits within the Chemicals Investigation Programme looking at biosolids and microplastics to groundwater. For microplastic monitoring in surface waters and sediments, a pilot study has been completed to develop sampling and analytical protocols that could be used to determine the quantities, loads and types of microplastics and tyre-wear particles in surface waters and sediments. This report will be available post July 2023.

We have also funded research to examine wider sources of microplastics, including tyres and textiles. This research will help to inform future policy. Technical experts from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) have also been leading the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment to develop a new indicator for microlitter (including microplastics) in seafloor sediments. This will help us to track progress in reducing plastics in the environment at a regional scale.

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