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- Plastics, chemicals and regulation
- Bridging the gap between academia and regulatory science
- Chemicals of emerging Arctic concern
- Guest column: Safety by design and smart market surveillance - the recipe for safe toys in the EU
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Päivi Jokiniemi and Paul Trouth
Article related to: news from echa
Plastics, chemicals and regulation
Plastics are important materials that are abundant in our daily lives. They make life easier in many ways, and are often lighter and less costly than alternative materials. However, some contain hazardous chemicals and when these end up in the environment, they can have a negative impact on nature and human health.
What's the issue?
Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic material, typically less than 5 mm in size. They can be unintentionally formed when larger pieces of plastic, including synthetic textiles, wear and tear. They can also be intentionally manufactured and added to products for specific purposes, for example, as exfoliating beads in facial or body scrubs.
An estimated 2 to 5 % of all plastics end up in the oceans. Once released into the environment, they may be consumed by and accumulate in animals, and can even end up in the fish and shellfish we eat.
With such high levels of plastic entering our environment and considering the harmful effects this may cause, solutions have been sought to design biodegradable and compostable plastics. But most that are currently available and labelled as biodegradable only degrade under specific conditions that do not occur in nature, and can therefore still cause harm to ecosystems.
Although intentionally added microplastics may represent a comparatively small proportion of all of the plastic found in the oceans, they could also be accumulating 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. The cosmetics industry has also taken voluntary action to replace plastic microbeads with alternatives.
Where are they used?
Intentionally added microplastic particles are used in a range of products placed on the EU market, including:
- certain cosmetics;
- personal care products;
- detergents and cleaning products;
- products used in the oil and gas industry; and
- media for abrasive blasting.
In similar products, microplastic particles can function 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, appearance and stability of a product.
Microplastic particles can be released into the environment through wastewater. So, for example, when you wash cosmetics from your face, the particles carried by the water run down into your sink and can end up as litter in the environment. In addition, they may pose a potential risk to human health. In the same way, certain products that intentionally release microplastics during their use, such as certain nutrient prills used in agriculture, are also a cause of similar concern for the environment.
What is ECHA doing to regulate this issue?
Prompted by such concerns, several EU Member States, including Belgium, France, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom, have 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. Actions to ban the intentional use of microplastics in consumer products are also already in effect in the US, Canada and South Korea as well as in other countries.
Furthermore, the European Commission recently published a study that provides further information on the intentional uses of microplastics in products and what risks they pose to human health and the environment.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also recently produced a statement that 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 human health, the Commission has started the process of restricting the use of intentionally added microplastics by requesting ECHA to review the scientific basis for taking regulatory action at EU level.
The Commission has also asked ECHA to investigate the need for a restriction for oxo-degradative plastics. These contain additives that promote the oxidation of the plastic material so that it degrades more quickly under certain conditions. The concern over these is that they also degrade into microplastics.
In January 2018, ECHA announced that it will examine the need for restrictions on oxo-degradative plastics and for intentionally added microplastic particles.
As part of this examination, the Agency undertook a call for evidence and information, which closed on 11 May 2018. This call aimed to gather information on all possible intentional uses of microplastic particles in products. The information gathered will be used to see whether these uses pose a risk at EU level and to assess the socio-economic impacts of any potential restriction. A separate call for evidence was also undertaken related to oxo-degradative plastics.
The initial scope of the investigation on microplastics was wide by design and not limited to intentional uses in consumer and professional products to ensure that the diversity of uses and the sectors within which intentionally added microplastics are used are fully understood.
The scope of any proposed restriction will be based on the information received as the Agency’s understanding of the risks and socio-economic impacts develops.
ECHA will submit its proposals to the Commission by mid-January 2019, after which discussions will continue in ECHA’s scientific committees: the Committee for Socio-economic Analysis (SEAC) and the Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC). The restriction proposals will then be subject to a six-month public consultation where companies, trade unions, NGOs, individual citizens or public authorities worldwide can comment.
Based on the opinions of RAC and SEAC, the Commission will prepare a draft amendment to the restriction list (Annex XVII to REACH).
Any possible restrictions will come into force at the same time in all EU Member States and depending on the scope of the proposals, intentionally added microplastics and oxo-degradative plastics will not be allowed to be used, manufactured or imported freely anymore in the EU.
Did you know?
Microplastics are synthetic, water-insoluble polymer items smaller than 5 mm in size, which are considered to be of particular concern for the aquatic environment. The potential impact of microplastics on the aquatic environment and human health has generated concerns in EU Member States and worldwide.
Oxo-degradative plastics or oxo-plastics 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.
Text by Nedyu Yasenov
Published on: 17 May 2018
Top image: © IStock.com/imagehub88
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Biocidal Products Committee:
26 February-1 March
Committee for Risk Assessment:
Committee for Socio-Economic
18-22 March (tentative)
Management Board meeting:
Member State Committee:
13-17 May (tentative)