- Focusing efforts where we make most impact
- REACH compliance – an Agency priority for 2019
- Reducing microplastic emissions by 400 000 tonnes over the next 20 years
- Five cobalt salts proposed for restriction
- Overcoming a substitution challenge: antifouling
- A case study from Cameroon: When chemicals escape control
- Mapping plastic additives
- Research on the safety of nanomaterials: beyond Horizon 2020
- Guest column: Protecting consumers against endocrine disruptors must be a top priority for the EU in 2019
- Do it yourself – but safety first
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Reducing microplastic emissions by 400 000 tonnes over the next 20 years
Small pieces of plastic called microplastics are intentionally added to a variety of products. From these products, they may be released to the environment, where they are likely to persist for thousands of years. Their potential effects on human health and the environment are not well understood. As part of the EU’s strategy on plastics, ECHA has recently proposed to restrict their use. We briefly explain the most important aspects of the proposal.
In November 2017, the European Commission requested ECHA to assess whether the use of intentionally added microplastics in consumer and professional products should be restricted. ECHA published the findings of its assessment in January 2019. After ECHA’s scientific committees have provided their opinions on the proposal, it will be sent to the European Commission for it to decide on the regulatory actions needed at EU level.
Why microplastics are a cause for concern
Microplastics are small, typically microscopic, synthetic polymer particles that resist degradation. They can form when larger pieces of plastic that have not been disposed of or recycled properly gradually break down in the environment. They can also be deliberately manufactured and intentionally added to products for a specific purpose. When these products are used, the microplastics may then be released to the environment.
Once released to the environment, microplastics are practically impossible to remove, and it is difficult to assess their long-term effects. They have been found in the oceans and rivers, as well as in sewage treatment plants and systems. They are also added to agricultural land through the use of sewage sludge as a fertiliser.
Due to their small size, microplastics can also be easily ingested by animals and thereby enter the food chain. In the environment, microplastics may eventually be broken down further to become nanoplastics, about which the potential effects are even less known.
There is currently not enough information to establish a safe level for microplastics in the environment or food. Due to the concerns for human health and the environment, several EU Member States have already restricted the use of microplastics in certain types of products at the national level.
Scope of ECHA’s proposal
In its assessment, ECHA found that the risks arising from the intentional use of microplastics are not adequately controlled. The Agency is proposing to restrict the use of intentionally added microplastics in products where their use results in the release of microplastics to the environment.
The proposed restriction would impact microplastics used in various consumer, professional, agricultural and industrial products, preventing their use in:
- cosmetic products – both rinse-off and leave-on products;
- detergents and maintenance products – for example, for the encapsulation of fragrances in laundry detergents and cleaning products; and
- agricultural and horticultural products – such as fertilisers and plant protection products.
Furthermore, the proposal suggests labelling requirements for a range of products containing microplastics in a variety of sectors to minimise their potential release during use, including:
- paints, inks and coatings – both for professional and consumer use;
- chemicals used in the oil and gas sector;
- construction products – such as fibre-reinforced cement and adhesives; and
- medicinal products and medical devices.
The restriction proposal does not cover naturally occurring polymers such as cellulose, polymers that meet the proposed interim biodegradability criteria, or fertilising products in the EU, for which the requirements will be set in the soon to be adopted Fertilising Products Regulation.
ECHA has proposed that the restriction would take effect in a step-by-step manner, to give industry time to reformulate their products and develop suitable, more environmentally friendly alternatives to microplastics. The first phase of the restriction, if adopted, is expected to enter into force in 2021.
The restriction proposal is based on current scientific knowledge and available information on the intentional uses and risks of microplastics. As scientific understanding will continue to evolve, ECHA’s proposal also requires that further information is collected on the uses of microplastics. This way, if additional measures are needed in the future, they would be based on the best possible information.
ECHA also recommends for a review of the restriction to be carried out five years after its entry into force. This is needed to assess how the market has adapted to the restriction, how well biodegradable polymers perform in the context of the intended use, and what additional information has become available on the impacts of microplastics on the environment and human health.
ECHA’s Committee for Risk Assessment and Committee for Socio-economic Analysis are currently checking the conformity of the restriction proposal and are expected to formulate their opinions in the coming months. To give stakeholders enough time to prepare for the six-month public consultation scheduled to start in March, the restriction proposal was published on ECHA’s website on 30 January 2019.
Did you know?
The proposed restriction would result in an emission reduction of approximately 400 thousand tonnes over the 20-year period following its entry into force. This does not take into account the additional reduction expected from the introduction of the Fertilising Products Regulation. The costs of the measure have been assessed to amount to approximately EUR 9.4 billion (net present value).
In January 2018, the European Commission published its first EU-wide plastics strategy, which aims to protect the environment from plastics waste while supporting a circular economy, growth and innovation.
ECHA’s microplastics restriction proposal forms part of the measures proposed by the Commission to reduce microplastic pollution as part of the plastics strategy. In addition, the Commission is addressing microplastic pollution resulting from unintentional release as well as finalising a directive on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products, such as single-use plastics, on the environment.
Plastic Waste: a European strategy to protect the planet, defend our citizens and empower our industries
Text by Nedyu Yasenov
Published on: 21 February 2019
Top image: © iStock.com/97
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Committee for Risk Assessment:
25-28 November 2019 and
3-5 December 2019
Committee for Socio-Economic
26-28 November 2019 and
3-5 December 2019
Member State Committee:
9-11 December 2019
3-7 February 2020 (tentative)
Biocidal Products Committee:
10-11 December 2019
Management Board meeting:
12-13 December 2019