What are microplastics?
Microplastics are solid plastic particles composed of polymers and functional additives less than 5 millimetres in size. Microplastics can be unintentionally formed when larger pieces of plastic, like car tires or synthetic textiles, wear and tear. They are also deliberately manufactured and added to products for specific purposes, such as exfoliating beads in facial or body scrubs. In that case, we’re talking about intentionally added microplastics.
Why are microplastics a problem?
It is estimated that each year around 42 000 tonnes of intentionally used microplastics end up in the environment. In addition, the release of unintentionally formed microplastics (when larger pieces of plastic wear and tear) to the European surface waters is estimated to be around 176.000 tonnes a year [source].
Already, microplastics have been found in almost all marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems as well as in food and drinking water. Their continued release contributes to the permanent pollution of our ecosystems and food chains. Exposure to microplastics in laboratory studies has been linked to a range of negative (eco)toxic and physical effects on living organisms.
As a result of increasing concerns over plastic leaching into the environment and potential migration into the food chain, EU Member States have already enacted or proposed national bans on intentional uses of microplastics in consumer products. Current bans mainly focus on the application of scrubbing microbeads in cosmetics. These beads are rinsed off after use and migrate to sewage treatment plants and surface waters.
ECHA’s proposed restriction on the use of microplastics
Within the REACH framework, substances can be subject to certain restrictions when the use of a substance poses an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment. Restrictions are applied to restrict (or even prohibit) the manufacturing, placing on the market (including importing), or use of a substance. Next to that, they can also impose relevant conditions such as requiring technical measures or specific labels.
As part of its plastics strategy and sustainable development goals, the EC asked the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to complete a restrictions proposal (a so-called Annex XV report) for intentionally added microplastics used in products that are placed on the European market. The proposal (from January 2019) aims to ban microplastics in products such as cosmetics, laundry products, fertilisers, plant protection products, seed coating, and other applications. According to ECHA, the ban on microplastics would prevent the release of 500.000 tonnes of microplastics into the environment over a 20-year period [source].
The proposal intends to ban products that contain microplastics from the EU market if these microplastics are inevitably released into our environment when the products are used. Products such as paints and inks may also contain microplastics, but their use does not inevitably lead to environmental releases. When the paint dries, the microplastic particles of the paint join together and form a film. Therefore these uses are not proposed to be banned.
However, the proposal does require companies to give instructions on how users can prevent or minimise any residual releases of microplastics into the environment. For example, instructions for paints that contain microplastics would need to describe how to clean paint residues from brushes and rollers without rinsing them into wastewater systems. Companies will also need to report these microplastic uses and releases to ECHA to ensure that residual releases are monitored and, if necessary, controlled in the future.
Specifically for artificial turf sports pitches, the proposal outlines two options to control the releases of microplastic infill: a ban on placing them on the market, or the mandatory use of risk management measures. These options have different costs to society, but also different effectiveness in preventing releases. Upcoming regulatory changes regarding artificial grass infill are relevant for producers and users of biodegradable infill granulates. Only polymeric materials meeting extensive biodegradability testing and pass levels (such as OECD and or ISO testing) may be allowed when the restriction becomes enforced.
Which polymers are covered?
The proposed restriction does not cover all polymers – it concerns only those that are consistent with the microplastic definition and relevant to the concern: less than 5 mm in size, solid, particulate, insoluble, and non-biodegradable.
The ECHA working definition within the restriction proposal originally did not distinguish between synthetic (i.e. artificial), naturally occurring, or modified/unmodified natural polymers, or between water-soluble and water-insoluble polymers. However, these elements are currently being recognized to be important for risk assessment. Information on these aspects was specifically requested in the call for evidence (Stakeholders responded to ECHA’s call for evidence for this restriction proposal on the basis of a ‘working definition’ for microplastic).
Clear criteria for (bio)degradability in the environment have not been proposed yet. However, ECHA is currently investigating whether any of the existing standard methods for determining the (bio)degradation of chemicals in environmental materials (such as OECD 301/ OECD 306) and their associated thresholds and guidance could be meaningfully applied to microplastic.
The adoption of this new piece of legislation will likely take place in 2022. Microbeads in cosmetics will get banned as soon as the Regulation is enforced. For other microplastic uses, transition periods are granted.
As of December 1st, the European Commission has opened a call for Evidence requesting input from all stakeholders with regard to the labelling, standardisation, certification, and regulatory measures for the main sources of microplastics. This call for evidence is now open for feedback until December 28th, 2021. Your input will be taken into account as the Commission further develops and fine-tunes its initiatives for measures intended to reduce the impacts of microplastics on the environment.