According to the Brussels-based European Environmental Bureau, the proposed ban on microplastics has major loopholes that would keep pollution flooding into the environment for nearly a decade. The organisation also warns that biodegradable plastics that have not been proven to biodegrade in the marine environment may be excluded from the ban.
The European Commission has pledged to ban the use of microplastics in cosmetics, paints, detergents, some farm, medical and other products. Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic less than 5mm in diameter that accumulate in the sea. Easily ingested by marine life, they therefore enter the food chain, ultimately landing on people’s plates. Recent studies have also found microplastics in air, drinking water, and in foods like salt or honey, with as yet unknown impacts on human health.
According to ECHA, the European Chemicals Agency, some 42,000 tonnes of microplastics that have been intentionally added to products end up in the environment each year due to the use of products containing them. The largest single source of pollution is the granular infill material used on artificial turf pitches, which is thought to account for up to 16 000 tonnes. In addition, around another 176,000 tonnes of unintentionally formed microplastics (when larger pieces of plastic wear and tear) are estimated to be discharged into European surface waters each year. Pointing to the ‘extreme persistence’ of microplastics, ECHA cited evidence that exposure to microplastics resulted in adverse ecotoxicological effects, noting that reversing these adverse effects in the future would be difficult.
In 2018, the agency compiled and submitted a restriction dossier, developed in the context of the EU Plastics Strategy, which aimed to curb intentional uses of microplastics in products placed on the EU/EEA market. The proposed restriction would reportedly prevent some 500,000 tonnes of microplastics being released over a 20-year period.
Since then, the dossier has been winding its way through the legislative processes of the EU and on Tuesday a detailed proposal was presented by ECHA to the Commission. The legal restriction is expected to become law next year.
However, the proposal is severely flawed, according to Rethink Plastic, a broad alliance of European NGOs working towards ambitious EU policies on plastics. Aiming to minimise costs to society and to avoid unnecessary delays, the proposal provides for transition periods - in some cases of up to 8 years - and derogations for certain sectors designed to allow the industry enough time to develop and transition to suitable alternatives, including biodegradable polymers where appropriate.
“The EU promised to turn off the taps on microplastic pollution. Take sport pitches – it’s a gigantic source of microplastics pollution and it’s now up to the Commission to make sure that a full ban is in order,” said Hélène Duguy, a chemicals lawyer at ClientEarth, a member organisation of the ReThink Plastics alliance.
The groups are urging the Commission to adopt a broad restriction that covers all microplastics in all sectors and uses.
"Microplastic pollution is everywhere: in our drinking water, our fields, filling the air in cities and even inside our bodies. While the EU is right to build on its reputation of tackling plastic pollution with this new ban, it must avoid being sidetracked by industry-sponsored loopholes, said European Environmental Bureau chemicals policy officer Elise Vitali. “We want a quick and broad restriction with no green light for unproven biodegradable plastic.”
The proposal is now in the hands of the Commission’s industry department, which has not always shown ambition on chemicals policy, the NGOs said. The Commission has until late May 2021 to draft the restriction text, which will then go to a vote of member state experts.
Rethink Plastic is part of the Break Free From Plastic movement. The alliance comprises the Center for International Environmental Law, ClientEarth, Environmental Investigation Agency , European Environmental Bureau , European Environmental Citizen’s Organisation for Standardisation, Greenpeace, Seas At Risk, Surfrider Foundation Europe, and Zero Waste Europe.