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ClientEarth Communications

16th November 2020

Wildlife & habitats

Microplastics are tiny, but they pose a huge problem

Small size, big impact

Concerns about ocean-clogging plastics have sparked high-profile campaigns and poignant documentaries, making us well aware of the plight of marine animals choking on plastic waste. But when it comes to plastic pollution, even the smallest particles can have a nasty impact.

So-called microplastics are plastic pieces that measure less than five millimetres across.

Some microplastics have formed by breaking away from larger plastics that have fragmented over time – think debris from tyre wear. Others have been made small intentionally, for example cosmetic microbeads used in facial scrubs.

The number of consumer and commercial products with intentionally added microplastics is massive: cosmetics, detergents, paints, medicines, nappies, pesticides – the list goes on.

Over time, these tiny particles end up flooding into our environment.

Scientists have found microplastics pretty much everywhere they have looked for them: on mountains, in the ocean, in the Arctic sea ice, and in our air, drinking water and bodies.

We’ve known for years that microplastics are problematic, but more and more studies keep emphasising just how much of an impact they are having on the environment and our health.

Scientists have warned that the situation is out of control.

Stopping the flood of microplastics

Policymakers could no longer turn a blind eye. In 2018 for instance, the UK banned all products containing microbeads.

EU policymakers decided to go further in a bid to stop this careless pollution. In 2019, upon request from the European Commission, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) prepared a proposal to ban a number of intentionally added microplastics.

Their intention is to reduce intentionally added microplastic pollution by nearly 400,000 tonnes from 2030 to 2050.

The initial proposal had to go through several rounds of public consultation and scientific assessments, inviting feedback from a range of actors, including industries who have an interest in keeping us hooked on plastic.

Member States will vote on the proposal in 2021 and a final ban is expected to come into force in early 2022.

Troubling loopholes

Our lawyers, alongside environmental experts from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the Rethink Plastic Alliance and other partner organisations, have kept a close eye on the different versions of the proposed ban. They have just published a detailed position paper on the ECHA’s latest proposal.

While they think the agency did a great job in collecting and analysing the evidence on the potential harm caused by microplastics, they think the proposal ultimately comes up short. That’s because of a series of exemptions, insufficient requirements and unjustified delays that risk jeopardising the overall effectiveness of the final restriction.

Despite the initial intention, not all intentionally added microplastics are covered. The current ban would give a free pass to smaller-sized microplastics, so-called “biodegradable” microplastics and soluble polymers. This might lead companies to replace the microplastics they use now with those, not helping to reduce the amount of microplastic pollution overall.

Other types of microplastics, like plastic pellets, or microplastics contained in sport pitches, are not completely off the hook but are not sufficiently regulated. Yet these are known to be major sources of microplastic pollution.

Some of the exemptions are hard to fathom. The current ban would not apply to microplastics in continence pads, menstrual pads and nappies, despite these being in direct contact with the human body and a known source of marine pollution.

And then there are those products that will be subject to the ban but only years after it comes into force. One example is the restriction for leave-on cosmetics which would only enter into force in 2028, while well-known alternatives already exist.

ClientEarth lawyer Hélène Duguy said: “With the loopholes we’re looking at, an ever-increasing volume of microplastics will keep on flooding into the environment. Once there, they persist and accumulate – hence the need to turn off the tap as fully and quickly as possible.”

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