“Leading the way”: EU moves to ban microbeads from use across industries

“Leading the way”: EU moves to ban microbeads from use across industries

31 Jan 2019 --- The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has proposed that the EU use its stringent chemical laws to stop most microplastics and microbeads being added to cosmetics, paints, detergents and some farm and medical products. The draft law was proposed today, and if adopted, the restriction could result in a reduction in emissions of microplastics of about 400 thousand tonnes over 20 years. The move follows the ban by several EU states of microplastics, which was far narrower and only included cosmetics and personal care products.

The European Commission (EC) had proposed to ban microplastics and microbeads in its Plastics Strategy released last year and formally requested the ECHA to investigate in line with the European procedure, Élise Vitali, Project Officer on Chemicals, European Environmental Bureau, tells PackagingInsights. The EU plastics strategy saw Europe become the first continent to start banning many types of single-use plastic by 2021.

Is the EU leading the way in plastic-waste reduction? “It is, it will be the first entity to ban microplastics regionally with such a wide scope of uses, and not only at the State level. Also, its single-use plastics Directive was also a move in the right direction,” notes Vitali.

The ECHA says that 10,000 to 60,000 tonnes of microplastics intentionally added to products leak into the environment yearly, are impossible to remove and last for thousands of years. The scale of the problem is dramatic: six times the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the plastic pollution generated by 10 billion plastic bottles, the agency says. 

Microplastics accumulate and persist in the environment, one of the main reasons why the agency concluded it is necessary to restrict microplastic ingredients under REACH, which are said to be the strictest set of chemical laws in the world.

As it stands, the draft law will only pertain to one sector when it comes into force, namely cleansing products made by firms that have already pledged to stop using microplastic. Other sectors will be granted 2 to 6 years before the law takes effect. The proposal will go to public consultation this summer followed by economic, social and risk assessments, and will then be subject to a vote by government experts in the secretive REACH committee no earlier than 2020.

Before 2020, a range of procedures must be followed and completed, Lara Fornabaio, Law and Policy Advisor at Client Earth tells PackagingInsights. Initially, two different comittees must check the ECHA proposal to see if it is compliant with regulations. This will take one month, and following this, there will be two public consultations. Lastly, the EC will have three months to prepare their decision and draft amendment.

NGOs have welcomed the move as a significant step forward, but strongly warn that it grants unnecessary delays for most industrial sectors and excludes some biodegradable polymers, says the Rethink Plastic Alliance.Click to EnlargeThe EU plastics strategy saw Europe become the first continent to start banning many types of single-use plastic by 2021.

Are microplastics and microbeads harmful?
Data available on the effects of microplastics and microbeads is limited, particularly for the terrestrial environment, which makes risk assessment difficult. Due to their small size, microplastics and nanoplastics – even smaller particles that are created from the further degradation of microplastics – may be readily ingested and enter the food chain. The potential effects on human health are still not well understood. 

The definition of microplastic is wide, covering small, typically microscopic (less than 5mm), synthetic polymer particles that resist (bio)degradation. 

Research focused on understanding the effects of microplastics has intensified after a different studies found that the tiny plastic particles are polluting marine environments, food supplies and our bodies. Most notably, last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched an investigation into the potential human health risks of microplastics after plastic particles were found in the water products of 11 leading brands.

In September 2018, University of Exeter researchers warned that record high levels of microplastics had been found deep in the sand where sea turtles lay their eggs in the Mediterranean region.

How are they used?
Microbeads are well known in the mainstream as offering an exfoliating element to many personal care products, yet their use was recently banned in several EU states.

“The EU is rapidly becoming a leader in the global culture shift away from wasteful plastic. Microplastic is one of those vast but largely invisible problems; a menace all around and in us,” says Vitali.

“It was fed by irresponsible firms, such as those making personal care products that decided to swap out natural ingredients like ground almond, coconut shell and olive seed for plastic microbeads. We’ll be pushing hard to tighten this proposal to ensure real impact. Tackling the plastics inside products is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to solving the microplastic blight, but is a necessary step,” she adds

However, a host of other sectors use them too, as detailed in the ECHA proposal:

  • Microplastics are an integral part of polymer dispersion binders in water-based paints and coatings, where they are present to coalescence into films (film-forming function). Microplastics are also used as specialty additives in architectural and industrial coatings (such as wood, plastic and metal). Click to EnlargeMicobeads can be present in many cleaning products.
  • Microplastics are also used in combination with metallic pigments to achieve a sparkle effect by controlling pigment orientation.
  • Microplastics are used in detergents and maintenance products to provide a range of functions, including as abrasives, fragrance encapsulations, opacifying agents and anti-foam agents. They can be used in surface cleaning products, fabric softeners, dishwashing liquids, waxes and polishes.
  • Microplastics have various functions in medical devices (MD) and in vitro diagnostic medical devices (IVD MD). In medical devices they are used as polymeric filters, adsorber and absorber granulates and in ultrasound devices. 
  • Microplastics are used in controlled-release formulations (CRF) for fertilizers and plant protection products (typically as microencapsulation), as fertilizer additives (e.g., anti-caking agents) and as soil conditioners. 

What else is the EU doing in tackling excess plastic waste?
Following months of negotiations, in December the European Parliament and the Council of the EU reached a provisional agreement on ambitious new single-use plastic measures proposed in May and identified the 10 types of single-use plastics that will be banned under the EU’s Plastics Strategy. 

The provisional agreement reached is still yet to be formally approved by the European Parliament and the Council. Following its approval, national governments will have until the end of 2021 to instate it.

Included in the directive, where alternatives are readily available and affordable, the following single-use plastic products will be banned from the market: Plastic cutlery (forks, knives, spoons and chopsticks), plastic plates, plastic straws, food containers made of expanded polystyrene, such as fast food boxes, cotton bud sticks made of plastic, beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene and products made from oxo-degradable plastic.

By Laxmi Haigh

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