The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is proposing an almost total ban on microplastics intentionally used in many everyday products, from cosmetics to fertilizers, according to a report released on Wednesday.
The report, ordered by the European Commission, is a first step towards final legislation likely to be published after the spring of 2020, according to the EU executive, which in the meantime plans to hold a public consultation.
Microplastics are tiny fragments that are less than 5 millimeters in diameter and resistant to biodegradation. According to Commission estimates, between 75,000 and 300,000 tonnes of microplastics are found in the wild each year in the EU. Most of it comes from the fragmentation of plastic waste (tires for example), but a “significant” part comes from particles used knowingly by different industries, the Commission said in a statement.
These “intentional” microplastics are widely used in agriculture and horticulture for fertilizers, or in cosmetics (in exfoliating products for example), detergents, paints or medical equipment.
The EU executive suggests that the “sectors affected by the restriction” “follow the procedure closely and submit their contribution during the public consultation”. In its report, ECHA said it is alarmed by the persistence of microplastics in the environment.
“The persistence and the potential for adverse effects or bioaccumulation of microplastics is a cause for concern,” the agency said in a statement.
Once released, they can be extremely persistent in the environment, lasting thousands of years, and practically impossible to remove.”
The restrictions proposed by ECHA would make it possible to reduce the volume of microplastics released into the EU environment by “about 400,000 tonnes over the next 20 years”, accounting for about 85 to 95 percent of the microplastics added that would be added intentionally if no restrictions were put in place.
“The EU is the first to tackle all intentionally added microplastics in products, not just microbeads used in cosmetics,” EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, was quoted as saying. Some EU Member States already prohibit these microelements in gels and creams used in cosmetics.
The measure is part of an EU clampdown on plastics, including a ban on single-use items.
There is little available data on the effects of microplastics, which are found particularly in soils. Because of their size, they can be “easily ingested and thus enter the food chain”, notes ECHA. “The potential effects on human health are still not well understood,” adds the scientific agency.