Microplastics are small pieces of plastics, usually smaller than 5mm. A growing volume of microplastics is found in the environment, including the sea, and in food and drinking water.
Once in the environment, microplastics do not biodegrade and tend to accumulate - unless they are specifically designed to biodegrade in the open environment. Biodegradability is a complex phenomenon, especially in the marine environment. There are increasing concerns about the presence of microplastics in different environment compartments (such as water), their impact on the environment and potentially human health.
The risks posed by microplastics and their presence in the environment, drinking water and food must be explored further.
There is currently no single European law that covers microplastics in a comprehensive manner. There are also no economic incentives for businesses to take measures to reduce the presence of microplastics in the environment.
As a first step, the European Commission requested the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to prepare a restriction dossier concerning the use of intentionally added microplastics to consumer or professional use products. The Commission will soon assess ECHA’s submission and reflect on the most appropriate measures.
In parallel, in the European Green Deal and new circular economy action plan, the European Commission announced a new initiative to address the unintentional release of microplastics in the environment. It aims to
- develop labelling, standardisation, certification and regulatory measures on unintentional release of microplastics, including measures to increase the capture of microplastics at all relevant stages of products’ lifecycle
- further develop and harmonise methods for measuring unintentionally released microplastics, especially from tyres and textiles, and delivering harmonised data on microplastics concentrations in seawater
- close the gaps in scientific knowledge related to the risk and presence of microplastics in the environment, drinking water and food
The aims of the upcoming microplastics initiative are to
- reduce the unintentional release of microplastics in the environment
- ultimately reduce environmental pollution and potential risks to human health
There is currently no EU law in place applying to microplastics in a comprehensive manner.
There are several specific laws with partial objectives
- Marine Strategy Framework Directive
- Fertilising Products Regulation
- REACH restriction proposal – which addresses intentionally added microplastics
Some microplastics are formed when larger plastics break down. These unintentionally formed microplastics fall outside of the scope of the new initiative, and are addressed by
Several EU laws affect the production of microplastics, or their release into the environment, both directly and indirectly. These are
Key dates related to the upcoming initiative on microplastics
- 2021Public consultation
This public consultation will focus on
- the release of microplastics from synthetic textiles during their entire life-cycle
- microplastics emissions from tyre abrasion
- release of pre-production plastic pellets during their entire life-cycle
- 11 March 2020Publication of the new circular economy action plan
Including specific measures on microplastics, in particular the restriction of intentionally added microplastics and measures on unintentional release of microplastics
- 11 December 2019Publication of the European Green Deal
Including a new initiative to address the unintentional presence of microplastics in the environment