New EU Legislation Prohibiting Microplastics
Microplastics are in our food, cosmetics, and even the tea bags we buy at the counter store (1). They are in the air that we breathe and in the seas we swim in. They even get detected in human placenta (2). In fact, there is more plastic than there are animals by mass on the planet (3). We hear mentions of these microplastics everywhere nowadays. The term was coined in 2004 and has grown in popularity ever since. So what even are microplastics to start with?
Microplastics are defined as any solid synthetic polymeric fiber, or particle of no more than 5 mm in their longest dimension (4). These pieces vary in size, ranging from roughly the dimensions of a grain of rice to being visible only under a microscope (5). There are two types of microplastics: primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics refer to intentionally manufactured microplastic particles that are designed to be very small in order to serve their intended purpose. For instance, they are found in exfoliating face washes, sunscreen, and as fine powder in toothpaste. Secondary microplastics refer to large plastic materials used in packaging such as shampoo bottles, food containers, paints, etc. which break down as time passes by due to abrasion, wind, sun, and other external factors. Another illustration of this phenomenon is when clothing made from synthetic fabrics releases microplastics during washing machine cycles (6). The primary focus of the new legislation, which will be explained in the upcoming paragraphs below mainly concerns primary microplastics. Before delving into the legislation details, it's important to first highlight the impacts of microplastics on both health and the environment.
The human body is indeed quite proficient at eliminating foreign substances. This is evident in the case of microplastics, which have been identified in our food, as microplastics have been observed exiting our bodies through fecal matter, underscoring our body's ability to expel them. However, despite our natural ability to excrete microplastics in our daily lives, it is crucial to recognize the significant health risks that workers in the textile industry encounter due to exposure to processed microplastics. These workers face hazardous health consequences as a result of their constant interaction with microplastics during their work. Frequency of exposure and hazardousness are key factors in identifying the toxicity level of any material which may explain why more concrete results are found in research on such industries. Be that as it may, more research is still needed on the health impacts of microplastics on humans in a wider context. Conversely, the environmental dangers associated with microplastics are abundantly evident; the accumulation of macro and microplastic debris in our oceans and freshwater bodies poses a severe threat to biodiversity, while also leading to soil pollution and the disruption of its flora, thereby impacting soil functions (7).
In light of the harm that microplastics cause to us and our environment, the EU Commission is taking steps to restrict purposeful microplastic addition to various products under the EU chemical legislation REACH. It is expected that the amount of microplastics released into the environment will be reduced by half a million tonnes, which would align with the EU Action Plan’s target to cut microplastic emissions by 30% by 2030 (8). The legislation allows various transition periods for the adaptation of different materials.
One significant change coming from this is scheduled for mid-October 2023 when the legislation will enforce a ban on loose glitter and microbeads. These are usually used in cosmetics such as nail art, skincare, and interestingly enough, toys, including those designed for pools. The pool toys are especially concerning because their usage extends to other water bodies which allows for the breaking down of particles and causing pollution (9). Further steps will require adjustment of different industries and the businesses will be given time to replace the hazardous small plastic particles with other materials for their products. Cleaning agents, agricultural chemicals, and medical devices are also expected to be covered by the new legislation.
What may come as most striking is the transformation of sports; whether it's football, basketball, or rugby, the majority of these sports are played on artificial grass fields. These fields are primarily composed of granular infill material that forms the playing surface. Over time, the microplastic particles tear up, as people run and kick balls over them. When you think about the gigantic size of sports fields and how common they are, the amount of granular infill material adds up. They are accountable for the largest share of microplastic usage in the EU, contributing to roughly 16,000 tonnes of annual releases, which is about 11% of the total 145,000 tonnes (10).
Such a fundamental change requires time, in this case, it’s until 2031. Since typical sports field infrastructure has a life span of around 12 years before the infill material needs renewal, the renewal will only be allowed to consist of ecological alternatives such as grass blades made out of sugarcane, hemp, and chalk (which are already in serial production and being implemented in some football fields in Europe). By 2031, all the microplastic versions will be out of the market (11).
There is promising research on a biodegradable alternative to microplastics in the cosmetics, health items, and agricultural industries where microplastics are used to ensure controlled release of the active material. Silk has the potential to replace microplastics in this role. This provides an economically viable opportunity because low-level silk, most of which is ordinarily discarded, is sufficient to derive the alternative. Additionally, it is a tunable material. Scientists can alter polymer chain arrangements to make them compatible with the desired item. The processing of silk fibers can be adapted to function on already-in-place manufacturing devices, making this a potentially straightforward solution to integrate (12).
Microplastics inside construction materials used in industrial sites will be exempt from the new legislation since they don’t release the microplastics to the environment or do it on a minuscule scale. However, this doesn’t mean that their usage will be overlooked. Instead, the manufacturers will be required to report their estimated microplastic emissions to ECHA yearly. Now that sustainability reports were mentioned, it was found that only 1 out of 10 popular cosmetic consumer brands mention microplastics in their public sustainability plan (13). The new legislation might hint at a possible change to these statistics in the upcoming years as exemplified in the case of manufacturers.
To sum up, microplastics are a pressing cause of concern nowadays for people and the planet as they enter every dimension of our living spaces, bodies, and nature. In response, the EU’s legislation is a promising call for action to 27 countries and will urge industries to find more sustainable solutions to this problem. Thus, the importance of looking through a corporate social responsibility lens becomes more evident with each step taken in this direction.
For further information, the legislation can be reached through this link:
www.gresham.ac.uk. (n.d.). Microplastics, Public Health Myth or Menace | Gresham College. [online] Available at: https://www.gresham.ac.uk/watch-now/microplastics-health
Ragusa A, Svelato A, Santacroce C, Catalano P, Notarstefano V, Carnevali O, Papa F, Rongioletti MCA, Baiocco F, Draghi S, D'Amore E, Rinaldo D, Matta M, Giorgini E. Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta. Environ Int. 2021
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European Commission (2023). Protecting Environment and Health: Commission adopts measures to restrict intentionally added microplastics. [online] Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_4581
Yale Sustainability (2020). Yale experts explain microplastics Available at: https://sustainability.yale.edu/explainers/yale-experts-explain-microplastics (Accessed: 05 October 2023).
Microplastics from textiles: Towards a circular economy for textiles in Europe (2023b) European Environment Agency. Available at: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/microplastics-from-textiles-towards-a
UNEP (2021) Plastic planet: How tiny plastic particles are polluting our soil. Available at: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/plastic-planet-how-tiny-plastic-particles-are-polluting-our-soil (Accessed: 05 October 2023).
European Commission (2021). European Green Deal: Commission aims for zero pollution in air, water and soil. [online] Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_2345.
Kerlin, K. (2021). Plastic ‘Pool’ Toy Pollution in the Wild. [online] UC Davis. Available at: https://www.ucdavis.edu/climate/news/plastic-pool-toy-pollution-wild
echa.europa.eu. (n.d.). Granules and mulches on sports pitches and playgrounds - ECHA. [online] Available at: https://echa.europa.eu/hot-topics/granules-mulches-on-pitches-playgrounds
deutschlandfunk.de (September 2023). EU-Verbot von Mikroplastik: Wie Kunstrasen ökologischer wird. [online] Deutschlandfunk. Available at: https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/eu-verbot-mikroplastik-kunstrasen-oekologie-100.html
World Economic Forum. (2022). Microplastics in products? Silk offers a biodegradable alternative. [online] Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/07/microplastics-products-silk-biodegradable-alternative/
Plastic Soup Foundation (2022 April). PLASTIC THE HIDDEN BEAUTY INGREDIENT [online] Available at: https://www.beatthemicrobead.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Plastic-TheHiddenBeautyIngredients.pdf.