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Microplastics in our environment – concerns and legislative developments

November 18, 2021
What is the fuss about?

Microplastics are found in growing quantities in the environment. They are tiny plastic particles, smaller than 5 mm in diameter. Due to their small size and non-biodegradability, they are easily ingested and have a tendency of accumulating in the water, soil, and tissues of different organisms. Typical sources of microplastics include laundering of synthetic clothes, abrasion of tyres, and degradation of larger plastic objects like plastic bags. While there is no evidence of widespread risk to human health at present, there are increasing concerns about the build-up of microplastics in the environment.

The EU legislative landscape

Prompted by increased concerns, several EU Member States have already enacted national bans on intentionally added microplastics in consumer products, for example microbeads in cosmetics. Currently, however, no European law exists that addresses microplastics in a comprehensive manner. Thus, the European Union aims to tackle this issue without delay.

In the European Green Deal and the new Circular Economy Action Plan, the European Commission announced their ambitions for addressing the unintentional release of microplastics into the environment. Examples of these sources include tyres, synthetic textiles, and industrial plastic pellets.

First announced in the EU Plastics Strategy, another expected restriction, prepared by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), concerns the use of intentionally added microplastics in products. Once adopted, this restriction will impact a wide range of industries and include countless products such as cosmetics, detergents, medicinal products, and various products used in agriculture.

These proposals have not yet been amended into law. We can expect the next few years to be pivotal as the Commission is likely to announce its proposals soon. Meanwhile, we at Sweco can help business identify the key legal issues in the existing – and emerging – legislations.

Key legal issues

One of the key issues in the legislative framework is how (micro)plastics are defined. In the EU, the legal definition of plastics is interlinked with the term polymer. This analogy is not, however, without its challenges; while all plastics are comprised of polymers, not all polymers form plastics. Indeed, polymers are often naturally occurring. In fact, all life forms are made up of some combination of polymers. Restricting the use and release of all polymers – without exceptions – would therefore be imprudent.

The Single-Use Plastics Directive offers some insight into the problems arising from the analogy between polymers and plastics. Furthermore, it has provided us with experience on how to interpret the exceptions. Just like in this Directive, unmodified natural polymers will likely be exempt from future restrictions. Biodegradability will most likely form another central element in the coming legislations.

A way forward

Indeed, the European legislature faces the challenge of creating a legislative framework which is sufficiently broad in scope to address the risks posed by microplastics, while allowing for appropriate and unambiguous exceptions and derogations.

The legislative landscape surrounding microplastics is thus far undefined and in motion: The definitions concerning microplastics are not yet firmly established, and the eventual scope of restrictions is still uncertain. What we can expect is ever more stringent legislation which will affect a widening range of products.

– Aleksi Maunumäki, Environmental law specialist, Sweco

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