Aim smaller, advisers tell EU as it enters microplastics fight

EU is preparing to ban the tiny plastic particles used in household products, but groups say firms could skirt rules.

Microplastics illustration
The tiny plastic particles added to cosmetics, detergents, paints and other common goods have found their way into natural environments ranging from deep-sea trenches to the Poles, and research suggests they may be harmful to living tissues [File: Anand Katakam/Reuters]

A draft European Union ban on microplastics would allow industry to use even smaller particles in cosmetics, detergents and paints, which could be more damaging than the tiny pieces of plastic already clogging up the natural world, campaigners and some EU advisers say.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, will next year seek a ban following a proposal from the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to prevent the addition of microplastics to certain products sold in Europe.

ECHA originally sought to prohibit microplastics with a minimum size of 1 nanometre (nm) for particles and 3 nm for fibres. But after input from expert groups and industry, it increased the minimum size for particles by 100 times to 100 nm.

Analysis by non-profit network the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), published on Tuesday, said this would allow companies to use smaller nanoplastic particles.

“It gives manufacturers a perverse incentive to switch production from micro- to nanoplastic, which may be more harmful to human and animal health because it can more easily get inside and harm living cells,” the EEB said.

ECHA told Reuters it increased the size limit to ensure the restriction could be enforced after industry groups said it is not possible to monitor the smallest particles.

European chemicals industry group CEFIC is among those seeking the exclusion of smaller nanoplastics from the ban.

“In many cases, the lower sizes are impossible to measure, which compromises the ability to implement and enforce the restriction,” CEFIC told the Reuters news agency in an email.

‘Significant knowledge gap’

Most intentionally added microplastics are bigger than 100 nm, although smaller particles are added to some cosmetics and laundry detergents.

The Committee for Risk Assessment, an expert group advising the Commission, said there is a “significant knowledge gap,” but research suggests smaller particles are more toxic and can penetrate deeply into the cells of marine life.

Not banning these smaller particles “may lead to regrettable substitution to particles with smaller size,” it said.

In Europe, approximately 42,000 tonnes of intentionally-added microplastics are released into the environment annually.

Microplastics, which are also created when bigger pieces of plastic litter break up over time, have been found in almost all environments investigated, including polar sea ice and the deepest ocean trenches.

Source: Reuters