30 January 2019: The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has released the results of its review of available scientific information on the environmental and health risks posed by intentionally added microplastics from a variety of sectors, from agriculture and construction to the cosmetic industry. Based on the assessment, the ECHA recommends an EU-wide restriction, which could reduce the amount of microplastics that the EU releases to the environment by approximately 400,000 tonnes over 20 years.

The ECHA assessed the risks posed by intentionally added microplastics, including their uses, emissions and possible risks, at the request of the European Commission (EC). The EU’s Plastics Strategy uses a stepwise approach to reduce emissions of microplastics from all sources, beginning with intentionally added microplastics in products. Second, the EU Plastics Strategy will focus on microplastics generated unintentionally during the life cycle of products, followed by plastic waste entering the sea.

The ECHA assessment finds that microplastics intentionally added to products are most likely to accumulate in terrestrial environments, with a much smaller proportion of microplastics being released directly to the aquatic environment. Once released, microplastics can be “extremely persistent in the environment, lasting thousands of years and practically impossible to remove,” according to the ECHA. The assessment further observes that microplastics and nanoplastics can be ingested by animals and enter the food chain, although the potential effects of plastics in the food chain are “still not well understood” and data on the effect of microplastics are limited, making risk assessment difficult.

Microplastics can be extremely persistent in the environment, lasting thousands of years and practically impossible to remove.

The proposed restriction focuses on microplastics intentionally added to products from which they will be released to the environment. The scope covers a wide range of professional and consumer products from multiple sectors, including products used in the agriculture and horticulture and oil and gas sectors; construction materials, paints and coatings; cosmetic products and maintenance products; detergents; and medicinal products. The ECHA’s assessment of the socioeconomic impact of the proposed restriction suggests that the restriction is expected to be cost-effective in all sectors, including the agriculture sector.

EU Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Karmenu Vella, welcomed the work on restricting microplastics intentionally added to products. He explained that the assessment is part of the EU’s “comprehensive approach to tackle microplastics,” and underscored the potential harm from microplastics on marine life, which then enter the food chain and pose “unknown impacts on human health.” Vella emphasized the EU is “the first to address all microplastics intentionally added in products, and not just microbeads used in cosmetics.”

EU Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), Elżbieta Bieńkowska, described the ECHA’s investigation as “an essential first step to tackle microplastics that are intentionally used in products.” She stressed the EU’s commitment to reduce microplastics, and supported close cooperation with the industry to replace microplastics with alternatives and “achieve a true circular plastics economy.”

Following this assessment, the ECHA’s Risk Assessment and Socio-Economic Analysis Committees and Enforcement Forum will review the proposed restriction dossier and hold a six-month public consultation. The EC is anticipated to propose amendments to the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Regulation by Spring 2020. [EC Press Release] [ECHA Press Release]