The European Union bans the use of microplastics
To protect the environment and human health from their toxic effects, the EU has restricted the use of synthetic polymer microparticles intentionally added to products.
Microplastics are small fragments of plastic (synthetic polymers) that are released into the environment through the degradation of larger products or their intentional use in some applications. It is estimated that between 75,000 and 300,000 tons of microplastics are released each year in the European Union.
Microplastics are present in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as in our food and drinking water. Their constant release leads to the permanent pollution of our ecosystems and food chains. Laboratory studies have shown that microplastics can cause a range of negative (eco)toxic and physical effects on living beings that ingest them.
In light of this, the European Commission has approved Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/2055 of 25 September 2023, published in the Official Journal of the European Union on September 27, 2022, amending Annex XVII to Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) as regards synthetic polymer microparticles.
In essence, the new Regulation restricts the manufacture and sale of organic synthetic polymers that are insoluble and resistant to degradation, both as substances on their own and where they are intentionally added to products that release microplastics when used. The definition of microplastics used to establish the restriction is very broad, covering microbeads (particles smaller than 5 mm) and fiber-like particles (particles under 15 mm in length and with a length to diameter ratio greater than 3).
The main measure adopted by the Regulation (EU) 2023/2055 is to ban the sale of these microplastics as substances on their own or of products that use them (in mixtures in a concentration equal to or greater than 0,01 % by weight).
Some examples of common products included in the ban are:
- Granular infill for use on synthetic sports surfaces, which constitutes the largest source of environmental emissions of intentionally-present microplastics. The ban will come into force after a period of 8 years to give pitch owners and managers time to switch to other alternatives and to allow for most existing pitches to reach their natural end-of-life.
- Cosmetic products that use microplastics for the purposes of exfoliation (microbeads) or to obtain specific textures, fragrances or colors. The ban will come into force immediately for cosmetic products containing microbeads, while the transition period will be between 4 and 12 years for other cosmetics, depending on the complexity of the product, the need for reformulation and the availability of suitable alternatives.
- Other products affected include detergents, fabric softeners, loose glitter, plant protection products, toys, etc. In terms of the entry into force of the ban for these products, in some cases (glitter) the ban will be immediate, whereas a transitional period of several years is provided in other cases.
The sale ban will not apply to products that do not release microplastics when used or where their release can be minimized (construction materials for example) Products used on industrial sites, in vitro diagnostic devices and some food additives are also excluded from the ban, although manufacturers will have to provide instructions on how to use and dispose of the product in order to prevent the release of microplastics.
Equally, products that are already specifically regulated at EU level, such as medicinal products (for human and veterinary use), food and feed, and food additives are also excluded from the scope of the Regulation.
It is hoped that these measures will lead to a 70% reduction in microplastic emissions, or the equivalent of preventing the release into the environment of approximately half a million tons of these products over the next 20 years.