Microplastics

Plastics, are important materials that are abundant in our economy. They make our lives easier in many ways and are often lighter or cost less than alternative materials. However, if they are not properly disposed of or recycled after they are used, they are often released into that environment where they can persist for long periods and degrade into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics, that are of concern. Microplastics can also be deliberately manufactured and intentionally added to products.

Microplastics are very small (typically smaller than 5mm) solid particles composed of mixtures of polymers (the primary components of plastics) and functional additives; they may also contain residual impurities from their manufacture. They can be unintentionally formed through the wear and tear of larger pieces of plastic, including synthetic textiles. They can also be deliberately manufactured and intentionally added to products for a specific purpose, for example, as exfoliating beads in facial or body scrubs. Once in the environment microplastics are accumulated by animals, including fish and shellfish, and consequently consumed as food, including by humans.

Prompted by concerns for the environment and human health, several EU Member States have enacted or proposed national bans on intentional uses of microplastics in certain consumer products, principally uses of ‘microbeads’ in ‘rinse-off’ cosmetic products, where they are used as an abrasive and polishing agent.

Recently, the European Commission published a study that provides further information on the intentional uses of microplastic particles in products and the risks they pose to human health and the environment. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also reviewed the available evidence on micro- and nanoplastics in food.

In line with REACH procedures for restricting substances that pose a risk to the environment or health, the Commission requested ECHA to assess the scientific evidence for taking regulatory action at the EU level on intentionally-added microplastics to products of any kind. Other options for reducing the release of microplastics in the aquatic environment are being investigated by another project by the European Commission.

In what typical consumer products can intentionally added microplastics be found? 

Intentionally-added microplastic particles are used in a range of products placed on the EU market, such as in fertilisers, plant protection products, leave-on and rinse-off cosmetic products, household and industrial detergents and cleaning products, paints and products used in the oil and gas industry.

In consumer products, microplastic particles are best known as an abrasive (e.g. exfoliating and polishing agents in cosmetics known as microbeads), but can also have other functions, such as controlling the viscosity (thickness), appearance and stability of a product. They are also used as glitters.

Restriction proposals submitted and under public consultation

In January 2018, ECHA announced that it will examine the need for an EU-wide restriction on the placing on the market or use of ‘intentionally-added’ microplastic particles in products or uses that ‘intentionally release’ microplastic particles to the environment.

As the first part of this investigation, the Agency launched a call for evidence and information on intentionally-added microplastics. This call is intended to gather information on all possible intentional uses of microplastic particles in products. The information gathered has been used to determine whether these uses pose a risk and to assess the socio-economic impacts of any potential restriction.

A stakeholder workshop was held in May 2018 to discuss key issues related to the restriction. ECHA published the results of its investigation in January 2019 and has proposed a wide-ranging restriction on intentional uses of microplastics in products placed on the EU market in order to avoid their release to the environment. The proposal is estimated to prevent the release of 400 000 tonnes of microplastics over the 20 year period following its introduction. Details of the proposal can be found by following the links below.

A public consultation on the proposal is open until 20 September 2019. Details of the public consultation can be found by following the links below.