On behalf of the European Parliament, the EU Commission is preparing a ban on intentionally added microplastics as part of the EU Plastics Strategy and the EU Action Plan "Pollutant-free air, water and soil". Such polymers are added to cosmetic and cleaning products, for example in the form of small beads with an abrasive effect, and are also found among other things in paints, varnishes or artificial turf fillings.
At the end of August, the EU Commission published a legislative proposal for member states to restrict the use of microplastics. It contains amendments in some places to the original draft of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and, among other things, provides for a different size limit for intentionally added polymer microparticles in products.
The EU Commission's draft refers to a restriction on the placing on the market of synthetic polymer microparticles as such, and of intentionally added particles. According to the draft, only solid polymer particles are affected, not microplastics in liquid, semi-solid or soluble form, because, according to EU experts, these do not remain in the environment as long and therefore involve a lower risk. Also excluded are microparticles from some sectors, such as pharmaceuticals or EU fertiliser products, the restriction of which is to be regulated under other directives.
In addition, the EU Commission proposes exemptions from the ban for synthetic polymer microparticles that are used at industrial sites, for example, because, in its view, the risk of release into the environment is minimised there by industry safety precautions. The restriction now presented in the legislative proposal covers particles smaller than 5 millimetres and fibrous particles smaller than 15 millimetres and is expected to reduce microplastic emissions into the environment by an estimated 500,000 tonnes over a 20-year period. According to the Commission, even tiny synthetic polymer microparticles below 0.1 micrometre, or smaller than 0.1 thousandth of a millimetre, pose a high risk to the environment, but the identification and quantification of such particles or even smaller is not possible with the analytical methods currently available. For the EU-wide implementation of the proposed restriction, the EU Commission recommends setting the lowest size category for synthetic polymer microparticles and intentionally added microplastics in products at 0.1 micrometre. To avoid micropolymers currently used in products being replaced with even smaller polymer particles, ECHA had originally proposed a lowest size limit in the range of millionths of a millimetre.
According to the EU Commission's draft, companies should also be required to indicate on the label, on the packaging, on the safety data sheet or on the package insert whether a product contains synthetic polymer microparticles. For selected product groups, the Commission proposes specific transition periods and exemptions to give affected industries sufficient time to comply with the restriction and switch to the use of suitable alternatives, such as degradable polymers. Companies will be granted transition periods of four to twelve years, depending on the product.
The EU Commission's timetable for the proposed restriction on intentionally added microplastics envisages, as the next step, discussions and consultation with member state representatives. Before the restriction can be adopted, it must be examined by the European Parliament and the Council.