In a momentous step towards environmental preservation, the European Union (EU) has initiated a ban on microplastics intentionally added to consumer products. Microplastics, pervasive in our oceans, mountains, food, water, and even our blood and stool, have become a global concern. According to the United Nations, there may be more microplastics in our seas than there are stars in the galaxy.
These tiny plastic particles are carried through the air, water, and soil and, once introduced into the environment, remain for centuries, posing a substantial threat to wildlife and potentially infiltrating the human food chain and the human body.
Microplastics serve various purposes in consumer products, such as abrasive particles in toothpaste or exfoliants, and as binders that alter liquid consistency. Annually, an estimated 42,000 tons of these minuscule plastic pieces intentionally added to products are released in the EU. The impact of these microplastics on human health remains largely unexplored.
Johanna Bernsel, spokesperson for the European Commission, emphasizes the critical need to halt the release of microplastics into the environment. To address this, the EU’s executive arm has implemented measures under European REACH legislation on harmful chemicals, effectively prohibiting the sale of both microplastics themselves and products intentionally incorporating them within the EU.
This comprehensive ban covers all synthetic polymer particles less than five millimeters in size that are organic, insoluble, and resistant to degradation. It will impact a wide range of consumer products, including cosmetics, detergents, glitter, fertilizers, plant protection items, toys, medicines, medical devices, and artificial sport surfaces.
Construction materials containing microplastics but not releasing them, as well as products used at industrial sites, are exempt from this ban. Nonetheless, manufacturers are required to report their estimated microplastic emissions annually and provide guidance on product usage and disposal to prevent microplastics from escaping into the environment.
Significantly, this ban extends to products manufactured abroad, underscoring the EU’s commitment to addressing this global environmental issue.
The implementation timeline for the ban varies across product categories. The ban on cosmetics containing microbeads and plastic glitter took effect in mid-October. However, other cosmetics will undergo a transition period of four to twelve years, contingent on product complexity and the availability of suitable alternatives. In the case of infill material used in sport pitches, there is an eight-year grace period to allow existing pitches to reach their end of life.
Yet the question persists: Can viable alternatives to microplastics be found? Marc Kreutzbruck, head of the Institute of Plastics Engineering at Germany’s University of Stuttgart, emphasizes the versatility of plastics and the challenge of finding substitutes that can achieve climate goals as effectively. He advocates for recycling and sustainability, stressing the value of collecting and recycling plastic.
Biodegradable plastics are considered an alternative, but they currently hold only a fraction of the market share and are unsuitable for certain products, particularly complex ones like food packaging.
The European Commission believes that developing sustainable alternatives and promoting sustainability and innovation in the chemicals industry are pivotal. The ban on microplastics is seen as an opportunity for the European industry to lead in the development of sustainable alternatives and emphasize sustainability.
Under the Zero Pollution Action Plan, the EU has committed to reducing microplastics waste by 30% by 2030. While the ban is expected to prevent the release of approximately half a million tons of microplastics into the environment, there’s an acknowledgment that more efforts may be needed. The EU is considering further steps to address microplastics unintentionally released, such as from clothes during washing or car tires.
Johanna Bernsel hopes that this new regulation may inspire other regions around the world to consider taking action to address microplastics and protect the environment. While the EU cannot impose measures on other countries or regions, setting an example on environmental matters has proven successful in the past.
In addition to the ban on microplastics in consumer products, the EU is also targeting plastic pellets, also known as nurdles. This initiative aims to reduce plastic pellet pollution by 74% by the end of the decade, ultimately reducing Europe’s microplastic pollution by 7%.
Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU commissioner for the environment, oceans, and fisheries, emphasizes the importance of cutting pollution at its source. The EU is urging operators who handle plastic pellets to take precautions to prevent spills, contain spills when they occur, and clean up after spills that are not contained. The proposal includes best handling practices for operators and mandatory certifications from an independent third party.
While the EU is pushing for stricter regulations, it also recognizes the need to balance environmental protection with economic considerations, particularly for smaller operators.
The recent enforcement of the ban on certain products containing microplastics, such as glitter and cosmetics, has already triggered changes, including a surge in sales in Germany and concerns among influencers. Scientists and doctors have long warned about the adverse effects of microplastics on human health, emphasizing that they can accumulate in the body, posing a potential threat.
The proposal will now be discussed by the European Parliament and Council, setting a precedent for global action against microplastic pollution. If no action is taken, global microplastic pollution is projected to double by 2040, according to a report from the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts.
Siegfried Schmuck, working on ocean conservation for Pew, highlights that industry best practice measures have existed for decades, but their voluntary nature and limited adoption necessitate mandatory regulations. The EU Commission’s proposal offers an opportunity to hold the industry accountable and effectively reduce microplastic pollution, which ranks as the third-largest source in the EU.