The build-up of microplastics is causing widespread concern: they last thousands of years, removal is nearly impossible, and the effects on human health are not well understood. That is why the European Chemicals Agency is proposing new limits on their use – a move which could see emissions of microplastics reduced by about 400 thousand tonnes over 20 years.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic material typically smaller than 5 millimetres. They are categorised according to their source: primary microplastics are directly released into the environment as small particles coming mainly from the laundering of synthetic clothes, vehicle tyre abrasion during driving, and personal care products such as facial scrubs.
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Secondary microplastics originate from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as plastic bags, bottles and fishing nets, and account for between 69 % and 81 % of those found in oceans where they are ingested by marine animals.
In September 2018, the European Parliament called on the European Commission to introduce an EU-wide ban on intentionally added microplastics in products such as cosmetics and detergents by 2020, and to take measures to minimise the release of microplastics from textiles, tyres, paint and cigarette butts.
On 30 January 2019, the ECHA published a proposal for restricting the use of microplastics, alongside restriction proposals for formaldehyde and siloxanes D4, D5 and D6. The proposal is based on the findings of the Chemicals Agency’s assessment of the health and environmental risks posed by those microplastics that are intentionally added to products.
Protecting human health
The assessment found that intentionally added microplastics are most likely to accumulate in the ground, via the particles concentrated in sewage sludge, which is often used as a fertiliser. A much smaller proportion of microplastics is released directly into rivers, lakes and seas.
Because microplastics and nanoplastics (even smaller particles resulting from the degradation of microplastics) are so small, they are easily ingested and can then enter the food chain. The potential effect on human health is not well understood.
Overall, the risks from products that release microplastics to the environment are not adequately controlled, according to the ECHA assessment. However, several EU Member States have already introduced bans on some uses of microplastics, mostly in wash-off cosmetic products.
The ECHA proposal is targeting a much wider range of products: including cosmetic products, detergents and maintenance products, paints and coatings, construction materials and medicinal products, as well as materials used in agriculture and horticulture and in the oil and gas sectors.
The implementation of the restriction is expected to be cost-effective in all sectors, including agriculture, identified in the proposal as the biggest source of intentionally added microplastics.
- Publication date
- Directorate-General for Environment