Innovation and Resources on Urban Waste


Banning microplastics: the next step in fighting the plastic epidemic?

1 April 2019

Plastic waste ending up in the environment is a problematic for many reasons, as reported here and elsewhere. One type of plastic has made the headlines more than once for its particularly alarming effects on the environment: microplastic. The material has been found virtually everywhere, from the remotest parts of oceans, over rivers  and soils, to drinking water, human poop, and most recently, the air.

While the biggest source of microplastics are road tyres and snythetic clothing, that release microscopic fractions of plastic during use, some producers add microplastics intentionally to their products.

Uses include cosmetics and personal care products detergents in which they act as exfoliants, cleaning products, paints, products used in the oil and gas industry and as media for abrasive blasting.

The EU has the goal of cutting 400,000 tonnes of plastic pollution in 20 years. To achieve this, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), upon request by the European Commission has investigated the options of banning intentionally added microplastics. The results of the investigation have led the agency to propose a strong restriction of ‘intentionally added microplastics’.

The material is extremely persistent in the environment, lasting up to thousand years, and adverse effects or bioaccumulation are a major concern. Currently it is not possible to determine the impact of such long-term exposure on the environment.

ECHA’s assessment found that added microplastics often accumulate in terrestrial environments, as the particles concentrate in sewage sludge that is frequently applied as fertiliser. The health impacts of microplastics entering the human food chain this way are not yet fully understood.

The phasing out proposed by ECHA would remove 36,000 tonnes a year of microplastic fibres and fragments. The legislation would enter into force in 2020.

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 synthetic clothes. This has added to concerns from some environmentalists that the process lacks urgency.