The emerging national debate on the environmental impact of single-use plastic, and its restriction, highlights the need to tackle another major source of marine pollution: microplastics. The European Chemical Agency recently called for a public consultation to restrict microplastics. Seas At Risk calls on Environmental and Health Ministries, civil society organisations and research institutes across Europe to take part in the consultation process and submit arguments and evidence in favour of an ambitious and wide-ranging restriction.

Microplastics are particles of plastic smaller than 5mm in size. They can result from the degradation of bigger plastic items (e.g. car tyres, synthetic clothing, plastic bottles, artificial turf, wet wipes) or can themselves be manufactured as part of plastic production (e.g. pre-production plastic pellets, flakes or powders). These particles are increasingly found in soil, fresh water, the ocean and wildlife.

It is still unclear what impact microplastics have on our human health and the environment. It is certain, however, that microplastics can fix, concentrate and transport chemical or toxic substances. In the marine environment, for example, when fish ingest microplastics, the chemicals fixed within them then amass in fish tissues. When those fish are consumed by species higher up the food chain (including humans), toxic substances from microplastics start accumulating, increasing thus the risk of developing diseases. Among all marine animals, microplastics particularly affect the filter feeders that are vital to coastal ecosystems, such as oysters and mussels, which filter water to remove toxins and excess nutrients.

Once microplastics enter the environment they are almost impossible to retrieve, whether in the ocean, on land, in soil or rivers. Thus, preventive measures to limit their release into the environment are crucial. Fortunately, there is increasing political will to understand, regulate and limit such pollution.

In June 2018, the UK was the first Member State to adopt a national ban on intentionally added microbeads in rinse-off personal care cosmetics, with the EU following suit. The European Plastics Strategy, adopted in 2018, encourages Member States to adopt a series of voluntary measures in response to microplastic pollution. Particular areas of interest are developing labelling standards to control microplastic releases at the source, financing mitigation and capture costs, raising awareness of shared responsibility throughout the supply chain, and deepening knowledge of microplastic transmission through the environment.

The recent EU wide public consultation opened by the European Chemical Agency, is promising. Although it aims to limit microplastics only in certain consumer products, such as cosmetics, paints and detergents, through the REACH Regulation, it nevertheless represents a first important step towards the restriction of microplastics in products across the EU. The consultation offers a timely opportunity for Member States, civil society and research institutes to provide EU experts with evidence of the environmental and health impacts of this large-scale yet often invisible problem. Following the EU Plastics Strategy, Seas At Risk hopes that the European Commission will take similar decisive steps to drastically reduce the release of microplastics in the environment.