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Microplastic Pollutants

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size. When released in nature, microplastic pollutants have raised several environmental and health concerns.

Microplastic pollutants

Microplastic Pollutants and the Environment

Here are eight of the key concerns associated with microplastics:

    Environmental Issues

    1. Environmental Pollution: First, microplastics can accumulate in various environments, including oceans, rivers, lakes, and soil. They jeopardize ecosystems and biodiversity, as organisms from invertebrates to large marine mammals can ingest them. The persistence of microplastics in the environment can lead to long-term pollution.
    2. Marine Life Impact: Secondly, aquatic organisms may mistake microplastics for food particles and ingest them. This confusion can lead to physical harm, internal damage, and blockages in the digestive systems of marine life. Sadly, the ingestion of microplastics by tiny organisms can have cascading effects throughout the food chain.
    3. Terrestrial Ecosystem Impact:  Microplastics can also contaminate soil, affecting terrestrial ecosystems. As a result, one can detect microplastics in agricultural lands, potentially leading to the uptake of microplastics by plants. The consequences of microplastic pollution in terrestrial environments are still an area of ongoing research.
    4. Airborne Transport: Microplastics can become airborne, leading to their presence in the atmosphere. This phenomenon can result from the breakdown of plastic items and the release of microplastics from products like synthetic clothing during washing. Therefore, the deposition of airborne microplastics may have implications for air quality.

    5. Long-Term Persistence: Microplastics can persist in the environment for extended periods, contributing to a chronic pollution issue. The resistance of microplastic to degradation means that these particles can remain in the environment for many years.

    6. Chemical Contamination: Microplastics can contain various chemicals, including pollutants and additives, in manufacturing processes, such as electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). Poor management of E-waste, or WEEE, may contaminate the environment over time. When organisms ingest microplastics, they may release their pollutants, potentially causing wildlife and human harm.

    Microplastics VS Public Health

    7. Contamination of Drinking Water: Studies have found microplastics in drinking water sources, including tap and bottled water. The sources of contamination include runoff from urban areas, industrial discharges, and atmospheric deposition. The potential health effects of consuming microplastics through drinking water are a subject of ongoing research. 

    8. Human Health Concerns: While the full impact on human health is not yet fully understood, there are concerns about the potential ingestion of microplastics through the food chain. Testing analyses have detected microplastics in certain food items, including seafood.

    Importantly, addressing these concerns requires a comprehensive approach, including:

    • the reduction of plastic usage, 
    • improved waste management practices and
    • the development of alternative materials.

    Microplastic Pollutants - Initiatives Worldwide

    To start with, microplastic control initiatives can take various forms, including bans, restrictions, and regulations of microplastics in certain products. Here are some examples of microplastic ban initiatives worldwide:

    1. United Kingdom: possible measures to control microbeads in personal care and cosmetic products.
    2. United States: Several U.S. states, such as California and Illinois, have also enacted legislation to ban or restrict the sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. Additionally, at the federal level, the Microbead-Free Waters Act prohibits the manufacturing and introduction into interstate commerce of rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally added plastic microbeads.
    3. Canada: Since microbeads are now part of Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), Canada implemented a ban on the manufacture, import, and sale of toiletries containing plastic microbeads. Consequently, the ban covers personal care products, including toothpaste and exfoliating cleansers.
    4. South Korea: South Korea has also taken steps to regulate microplastics in cosmetics. As a result, the country has banned microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics. Additionally, there are ongoing efforts to expand regulations on other products.
    5. New Zealand: This country has also proposed laws to ban the sale and manufacture of personal care products containing plastic microbeads to reduce their environmental impact.
    6. Australia: Similarly, some Australian states and territories have taken steps to ban or restrict plastic microbeads in personal care and cosmetic products. 
    7. European Union: Finally, the EU has also implemented restrictions on the intentional use of microplastics in products, as detailed below. 

    The EU Regulations against Microplastics

    Interestingly, the EU may now lead the fight against microplastic pollutants. Indeed, the EU has been taking steps to address the issue of microplastics in various products and the environment. It’s important to note that these regulations are constantly evolving. To date, the following are some EU actions against microplastic pollutants:

    1. Restrictions on Intentional Microplastics: The EU has implemented restrictions on the intentional use of microplastics in certain products, including cosmetics, personal care products, detergents, and certain agricultural and industrial products. The restrictions aim to limit the release of microplastics into the environment.
    2. Single-Use Plastics Directive: The EU has adopted the Single-Use Plastics (SUP) Directive, which targets the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment. While this directive primarily focuses on single-use plastic items, it also addresses the presence of microplastics in some products, including beverage containers, cups, and food containers.
    3. Marine Strategy Framework Directive: The MSFD plans actions to protect marine life. While not dedicated to microplastics, it includes measures to address marine litter, which encompasses plastics, including microplastics.
    4. Circular Economy Action Plan: The EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan includes measures to address plastic waste and promote a more circular approach to plastic use. Circular Economy initiatives may set goals to reduce plastic waste, improve recycling, and prevent the release of microplastics into the environment.

     

    Finally, the EU has deployed a fifth regulatory tool to tackle microplastic pollutants: REACH.

    REACH and Microplastics

    In 2023, the European Commission (EC) released the EU REACH Annex XVII entry 78 on Synthetic polymer microparticles. It restricts the use of microplastics at concentrations above 0.01% in several products, including:

    • rinse-off products, from 2027,
    • detergents, from 2028,
    • fertilizers or similar products, also from 2028,
    • encapsulation of fragrances, from 2029,
    • Synthetic sports surfaces, from 2031, and
    • Lip products, from 2035.

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