A Belgium-based environmental group is pointing to what it says are major loopholes in a proposed ban on microplastics in the European Union.
The European Environmental Bureau says those loopholes would allow pollution to flood into the environment for another decade, and it 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, medical, some agriculture parts and other products. Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic less than 5 millimeters in diameter. Easily ingested by marine life, microplastics in the water wind up in 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 the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), 42,000 metric tons of microplastics 'that have been intentionally added to products end up in the environment each year. The largest single source is the granular infill material used on artificial turf sports fields, which is thought to account for up to 16 000 tonnes. In addition, around another 176,000 tonnes of microplastics are created through the wear and tear on larger pieces of plastic in waterways.
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 in the European 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 Feb. 23, a detailed proposal was presented by ECHA to the European Commission. The legal restriction is expected to become law next year.
However, the proposal is severely flawed, according to the Rethink Plastic Alliance, a group of European nongovernmental organizations working towards ambitious EU policies on plastics. Aiming to minimize costs to society and to avoid unnecessary delays, the proposal provides for transition periods of up to eight years and exceptions 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 [athletic fields], 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 organization of the Rethink Plastic 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.