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The problem with microplastics

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.

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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?

In January 2019, ECHA proposed a wide-ranging restriction on intentional uses of microplastics in products placed on the EU/EEA market to avoid or reduce their release to the environment. The proposal is estimated to cut down emissions by at least 85 % and prevent the release of 400 000 tonnes of microplastics over the 20-year period following its introduction.

ECHA’s scientific committees are currently developing their opinion on the proposal, which is expected to be finalised by summer 2020. The European Commission will make the final decision taking ECHA’s opinion into consideration. Follow the links below for more details.

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