Two orca fins in black water

Can eco-labels really save our marine life?

The EU and the UK have introduced new measures to stop the growing amount of plastics ending up in our oceans. But how much will this help the growing crisis affecting our marine life?

The EU’s voluntary scheme, the ecolabel, has introduced stricter criteria for companies wanting to use the sustainability label for soaps and detergents.

This includes a restriction on the use of microplastics, which are increasingly causing problems for the ocean’s health – and for the health of marine wildlife. Because of their tiny size, microplastics are very likely to be ingested by marine life and passed up the food chain to people.

While the EU ecolabel allows companies to show their commitment to lowering their environmental impact these measures cannot be a replacement for what is really needed – urgent EU-level action to ban the use of microplastics and other environmentally damaging substances across different sectors.

Meanwhile, the UK government has announced that it will be banning plastic microbeads in all ‘rinse-off’ cosmetics and personal care products. The ban on manufacturing will start in January 2018, while the ban on sales of products that have already been manufactured will start at the end of June that year. This is a welcome development that will see the UK among the first to ban microbeads in these products. But will the EU and other nations follow suit?

What do plastics do to the oceans?

Our oceans are being choked by plastics. Eight million tonnes of plastics are being dumped in our oceans every year. The negative impacts of plastic pollution on our wildlife can be devastating. Marine mammals can die from entanglement in marine litter, and studies have found that over 90% of all seabirds have plastic in their stomachs.

Another problem which is harder to see is that as these plastic pollutants break down, toxic chemicals are released. Some of these chemicals come from the waste plastics themselves, while others come from different sources like industrial run-off. This creates a harmful cocktail of substances that are ingested by marine life – and ultimately passed up the food chain to us.

In May this year, an orca known as Lulu was found dead on UK shores. She was a member of the UK’s last resident pod, and a postmortem suggests the high levels of toxic pollutants found in her blubber, known as PCBs, had made her infertile. Scientists believe that there is a link between ingestion of plastics and PBCs – so marine plastics pollution may well have contributed to the contamination of Lulu’s blubber. For this pod of orcas, this creates more concern that the level of pollution in the oceans will cause the extinction of these animals.

How will changes to the ecolabel help?

The changes to the ecolabel are important because they show some willingness by the EU to address the issue of plastics pollution in our seas. It is encouraging that businesses are signing up and making these voluntary changes.

But the ecolabel is voluntary, and its success depends on how many companies sign up. There is a difficult balance to be struck here – make the criteria too strict and fewer companies will be able to follow it. But make the criteria too relaxed and while more businesses might sign up, the environmental benefits will be limited.

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Marie and Alistair Knock