Curbing the hidden side of plastic pollution?

The EU is planning to use its powerful chemicals laws to restrict microplastics ingredients in our products. However, green groups are concerned that loopholes in the current proposal may water its effects down.

Looming beneath the ocean of disposable straws, cups and bottles that became the symbol of single-use plastics, microplastics pose a hidden threat to people and nature.

According to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), 36,000 tonnes of intentionally-added microplastics leak into the environment yearly. Once released into the air, water streams and soil, these particles are impossible to remove and can last for thousands of years. The scale of the problem is dramatic: six times the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the plastic pollution generated by 10 billion plastic bottles, the agency says.

Due to their small size, down to the nano range, microplastics are easily ingested by wildlife and transferred along food chains. Recent studies found them in 90% of table salt sold around the world, as well as in over 90% of bottled water, which prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to announce a health review.

Microplastics also carry other environmental pollutants, Tatiana Santos, a chemicals expert at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), told META:

“Micro and nanoplastics, like many types of plastic, contain harmful chemical additives that can easily migrate into food and drinks.”

Earlier this year, the ECHA published scientific data showing that microplastics contamination is out of control and constitutes a serious risk to our environment. The agency concluded it is necessary to restrict microplastic ingredients under REACH, the strictest set of chemical laws in the world, and issued a proposal that could cut microplastics emissions of about 400,000 tonnes over 20 years.

This restriction proposal is part of a number of actions to curb plastic pollution under the European Plastics Strategy, and was warmly welcomed by environmental groups as a significant step forward.

However, its impact could be watered down by unnecessary delays for most industrial sectors and exclusions for some biodegradable polymers, warned campaigners in a joint letter to European Environment Ministers. The letter was co-signed by over thirty NGOs, including the EEB, in coordination with the Rethink Plastic alliance and the global movement Break Free From Plastic.

The signatories highlight how the very broad and problematic derogations regarding so-called biodegradable microplastics, as well as the unduly long transitional periods currently included in the proposal, will considerably undermine the capacity of the restriction to achieve its objective, and should therefore be rejected.

“The proposed transitional periods are too long, given the urgent need to stop the release of microplastics into the environment,” explained Elise Vitali, chemicals project officer at the European Environmental Bureau. “Excluding allegedly biodegradable plastics from the restriction is basically ‘permission to pollute’. This law should stop microplastics getting into the environment in the first place.”

“If passed as it stands, this could seriously jeopardise the reputation the EU has built for itself as a leader in the fight against plastic pollution. The loopholes should be closed,” she added.

Campaigners also highlight that, while EU laws can be a powerful tool to curb microplastic pollution, producers too have an important role to play. Delphine Lévi Alvarès, European coordinator of Break Free From Plastic, said:

“It is high time industry stops using biodegradability claims to win exemptions and create loopholes in much needed restrictions, be it on single-use plastics or in this case on microplastics added to products. If it is even slightly serious about helping to solve the plastic crisis, industry should rather focus efforts on redesigning and removing all intentionally added microplastics from products.”