EU proposes ban on 90% of microplastic pollutants
31 January 2019 | Mitigation
A wide-ranging ban on microplastics covering about 90% of pollutants has been proposed by the EU in an attempt to cut 400,000 tonnes of plastic pollution in 20 years.
Every year, Europe releases a bulk amount of microplastics six times bigger than the “Great Pacific garbage patch” into the environment – the equivalent of 10bn plastic bottles.
The phasing out proposed by the European Chemicals Agency (Echa) would remove 36,000 tonnes a year of “intentionally added” microplastic fibres and fragments, starting in 2020.
Cosmetics, detergents, paints, polish and coatings would all require design overhauls, as would products in the construction, agriculture and fossil fuels sectors.
The draft law targets microplastics that are not necessary but have been added to products by manufacturers for convenience or profit.
Baskut Tuncak, the UN’s special rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, said: “Microplastics are a growing concern to a number of human rights. The steps proposed by Echa are necessary to help ensure present and future generations can enjoy what is their human right: a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”
The UK imposed a more limited ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products last year, focused on items such as shaving foam, toothpaste and shower gel.
The EU’s measure is “much more comprehensive”, according to its authors, in terms of the sectors, volumes and product usages covered.
Peter Simpson, a senior scientist at Echa, said: “We are also looking at ‘leave-on’ cosmetics such as makeup or moisturisers as well as detergents, which aren’t included in the UK ban, and materials such as encapsulation fragrances that are used in other household products.”
The legislation also phases out the use of microplastics in products such as fertilisers, from which scientists believe they may be entering the human food chain.
An Echa spokesperson said it was “unknown for now” whether the measure would apply in the UK after Brexit.
Seb Dance, Labour’s deputy leader in the European parliament, said Britons could lose out as a result of leaving the EU. “Clearly these proposals go much further than the measures so far suggested by Michael Gove,” he said.
“But even if Gove’s plan was as ambitious as this, there would be little point in one country taking action on its own to try to solve this crisis, as the products we buy, and the supply chains they depend on, cross many borders.
“Whatever the shenanigans in Westminster, let’s hope that the government and MPs do not lose sight of the need to have comprehensive cross-border initiatives that scale up the response to the problem.”
Prof Richard Thompson of Plymouth University’s school of biological and marine sciences said: “Plastics don’t respect borders in the way that people do and, for me, the appropriate scale to legislate for our environment on is the European one. I have concerns that we may be compromised by leaving the EU, because it’s more complicated to manage things on a country-by-country basis.”
Echa’s scientific committee will review the proposal for 15 months before sending an opinion to the European commission, which will have three months to prepare legislation. It could then take up to eight months for use restrictions to come into force.
The measure is part of an EU clampdown on plastics, ranging from taxes and bans on single-use items to a €350m (£305m) investment in modernising the sector through investment and more recycling.
Product bans and use restrictions on microplastics would be phased in over a six-year period, designed to give companies lead time to change production processes and parts at minimal cost.
However, it does not tackle the estimated 176,000 tonnes of microplastics that are unintentionally released into EU surface waters every year, the lion’s share from road tyre wear and preproduction pellets. This has added to concerns from some environmentalists that the process lacks urgency.
Elise Vitali, chemicals policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, said the microplastics problem was “fed by irresponsible firms, such as those making personal care products, that decided to swap natural ingredients like ground almond, coconut shell and olive seed for plastic microbeads and ignored the public backlash and scientific warnings”.
She added: “We’ll be pushing hard to tighten this proposal to ensure real impact. Tackling the plastics inside products is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to solving the microplastic blight, but is a necessary step.”
Microplastics are tiny synthetic polymers that resist biodegradation and block the digestive tracts of aquatic creatures, turtles and birds, diminishing the urge to eat and altering feeding behaviour.
With mass industrial production, they have spread to Earth’s peaks, depths, the Arctic and human bodies, where their health impacts are not yet fully understood.
Source: The Guardian