LONDON — They’re tiny, colorful and harmless-looking, but these little pellets are being blamed for causing big problems for the world’s oceans and seas.
The items in question are plastic microbeads, and on Tuesday, Britain made good on a pledge to ban the manufacturing of personal care products containing them.
So what are these pellets, and what’s all the fuss about?
Microbeads are itty-bitty plastic orbs that can be found in exfoliating facial scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste, among other products. They are part of a larger class of microplastics, or pieces of plastic less than five millimeters, or 0.2 inch, long. (Roughly the size of a grain of rice.)
Microplastics exist elsewhere, too. They can be found in chewing gum, industrial cleaning products, synthetic clothing fibers and tires.
Manufacturers including Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have advertised the exfoliating powers of microbeads, particularly in face and body scrubs.
Many of those companies have pledged to voluntarily phase out use of the pellets.
About eight million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans each year, according to a 2015 report by the journal Science. While microbeads represent only a small percentage of those plastics, there is growing concern about their presence in oceans, lakes and rivers.
Microbeads that wash down drains cannot be filtered out by many wastewater treatment plants, meaning that tiny plastics slip easily into waterways. Fish and other marine animals often eat them, introducing potentially toxic substances into the food chain.
A single shower can flush as many as 100,000 microbeads, according to a 2016 report by the Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons in Britain. That adds up pretty quickly.
The government pledged in September 2016 to ban the manufacturing of cosmetic products with microbeads, and that ban took full effect on Tuesday. A ban on the sale of such products will come later this year.
“The world’s seas and oceans are some of our most valuable natural assets, and I am determined we act now to tackle the plastic that devastates our precious marine life,” Thérèse Coffey, the British environment minister, said in a statement.
Sue Kinsey, a senior pollution officer at the Marine Conservation Society, called the microbead ban “the strongest and most comprehensive ban to be enacted in the world.”
The United States passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which required companies to stop using microbeads in beauty and health products by July 2017, and Canada’s ban on manufacturing the pellets took effect at the beginning of this year.
New Zealand’s ban on microbeads is to take effect in June. Several countries in the European Union have campaigned for a similar ban.
“Microbeads linger — the ones in our oceans will be there for centuries, and they’re still permitted in products other than rinse-off cosmetics,” said Tisha Brown, a campaigner for Greenpeace in Britain.
Chris Flower, the director general of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, said in an email that most of the industry had already phased out microplastics in rinse-off products.
He still welcomed the ban, however, saying it “will ensure that all cosmetics companies, now and in the future, are bound by law to not include plastic microbeads in their products.”
Dr. Flower added that broader action against plastic pollution would be needed.
The harmful effects of plastic on the world’s oceans were documented by David Attenborough recently on the BBC series “Blue Planet II.” Scenes from the television program include a turtle trying to swim while tangled in a plastic bag, and clumps of plastic trash floating in the open ocean.
Prime Minister Theresa May tweeted about the show and the need to act, mentioning Britain’s introduction of a 5-pence, or 7-cent, charge for plastic shopping bags in 2015.
Britain is also considering a “latte levy” — a tax of 25 pence — on disposable coffee cups, which are laminated with plastic to make them waterproof. And Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has pushed for more public drinking fountains and bottle-refilling stations.