Plastics are important materials that are abundant in our economy. They make our lives easier in many ways and are often lighter or cost less than alternative materials. However, if they are not properly disposed of or recycled after they are used, they can persist for long periods in the environment and can also degrade into small pieces that are of concern – microplastics. Microplastics can also be deliberately manufactured and intentionally added to products. In addition, some plastics contain hazardous chemicals that can have a negative impact on nature or human health.
Microplastics are very small particles of plastic material (typically smaller than 5mm). They can be unintentionally formed through the wear and tear of larger pieces of plastic, including synthetic textiles. They can also be deliberately manufactured and intentionally added to products for a specific purpose, for example, as exfoliating beads in facial or body scrubs. Once released to the environment, they may be accumulated by animals, including fish and shellfish and consequently consumed as food by consumers.
Prompted by concerns for the environment and human health, several EU Member States have enacted or proposed national bans on the intentional use of microplastics in certain consumer products, principally uses of ‘microbeads’ in ‘rinse-off’ cosmetic products where they are used as exfoliating and cleansing agents.
Recently, the European Commission published a study that provides further information on the intentional uses of microplastic particles in products and the risks they pose to human health and the environment. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also reviewed the available evidence on micro- and nanoplastics in food.
In line with REACH procedures for restricting substances that pose a risk to the environment or health, the Commission requested ECHA to assess the scientific evidence for taking regulatory action at the EU level on intentionally-added microplastics to products of any kind. Other options for reducing the release of microplastics in the aquatic environment are being investigated by another project by the European Commission.
In what typical consumer products can intentionally added microplastics be found?
Intentionally-added microplastic particles are used in a range of products placed on the EU market, such as in certain cosmetics, personal care products, detergents, cleaning products, paints, products used in the oil and gas industry and as media for abrasive blasting.
In consumer products, microplastic particles are best known as an abrasive (e.g. exfoliating and polishing agents in cosmetics known as microbeads), but can also have other functions, such as controlling the viscosity (thickness), appearance and stability of a product.
In addition, ECHA is also looking at products that intentionally release microplastics as part of their function, for example, nutrient prills used in agriculture.
How do they potentially contribute to environmental contamination?
An estimated 2 to 5 % of all plastics produced end up in oceans. Some of these are in the form of microplastics.
Microplastics that are intentionally added to products are currently thought to represent only a comparatively small proportion of all those in the sea. However, they could be causing problems ‘upstream’ in our inland waters and soils. In response to this, several countries, including some EU Member States, have taken action to restrict their use.
Restriction proposals are being prepared
In January 2018, ECHA announced that it will examine the need for an EU-wide restriction on the placing on the market or use of ‘intentionally-added’ microplastic particles in products or uses that ‘intentionally release’ microplastic particles to the environment.
As the first part of this investigation, the Agency launched a call for evidence and information on intentionally-added microplastics. This call is intended to gather information on all possible intentional uses of microplastic particles in products. The information gathered will be used to determine whether these uses pose a risk and to assess the socio-economic impacts of any potential restriction.
A stakeholder workshop was held in May 2018 to discuss key issues related to the restriction. As a follow-up to the workshop, in July 2018, ECHA published a note on substance identification and the potential scope of a restriction on uses of microplastics.
ECHA has also been requested by the Commission to investigate the need for an EU-wide restriction on the placing on the market of oxo-plastics and intentionally-added microplastic particles to products.
Oxo-plastics or oxo-degradable plastics are conventional plastics that contain additives that promote the oxidation of the material under certain conditions. They are used in applications such as agricultural films, rubbish and carrier bags, food packaging, and landfill covers. They can break down into very small particles, potentially contributing to environmental contamination by microplastics.
A call for evidence was launched on 28 March and closed on 11 May 2018.