Plastics are important materials. They make our lives easier and are often lighter and cost less than alternative materials. However, if they are not properly disposed of or recycled, 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 and often much smaller including nano plastics). 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 or as glitter in make-up. Once released to the environment, they may be accumulated by animals, including fish and shellfish and consequently eaten 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.
Where can you find microplastics?
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 addition, some products intentionally release microplastics as part of their function, for example, nutrient prills used in agriculture.
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.
What is the EU doing?
The European Commission has requested ECHA to assess the scientific evidence for regulating the use of intentionally-added microplastics in products of any kind in the EU and if necessary proposing a restriction by January 2019. Other options for reducing the release of microplastics in the aquatic environment are being investigated by another project by the European Commission. Follow the links below and get more details.
- Plastic Waste: a European strategy to protect the planet, defend our citizens and empower our industries – European Commission press release (16 January 2018)
- Plastics Strategy of the European Commission
- Intentionally added microplastics in products – Final report of the study conducted by Amec Foster Wheeler Environment & Infrastructure UK Limited in October 2017 on behalf of the European Commission
- Website for European Commission project — "Investigating options for reducing releases in the aquatic environment of microplastics emitted by (but not intentionally added in) products"
- Presence of microplastics and nanoplastics in food, with particular focus on seafood – scientific opinion of EFSA’s Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM)
- European Parliament – Strategy on plastics in the circular economy / 2017 (under: Legislative train schedule)