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Restriction Proposed Regarding Intentionally Added Microplastics

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) announced on 30 January 2019 that it has submitted a “restriction proposal” for microplastic particles that are intentionally added to mixtures used by consumers or professionals. The report states that ECHA has assessed the health and environmental risks posed by intentionally added microplastics and has concluded that an EU-wide restriction would be justified.

Microplastics are said to be manufactured and intentionally used in many mixtures placed on the market in the EU. It is these ‘intentional’ uses of microplastics which are the focus of the proposed restriction. The intent of the proposed restriction is not to regulate the use of polymers generally, but only where they meet the specific conditions that identify them as being microplastics and where their use will result in releases of microplastics to the environment.

ECHA’s proposed restriction targets intentionally added microplastics in products from which they will inevitably be released to the environment. The definition of microplastic is wide, covering small, typically microscopic (less than 5mm), synthetic polymer particles that resist (bio)degradation.

The scope covers a wide range of uses in consumer and professional products in multiple sectors of interest to Hong Kong traders. These include cosmetic products, detergents and maintenance products (e.g. as fragrance encapsulation in laundry detergents and fabric softeners as well as in products for cleaning and polishing); paints, coatings and inks; food supplements; construction materials and medicinal products, as well as various products used in agriculture and horticulture and in the oil and gas sectors.

The different conditions of use associated with the different product groups/sectors result in large differences in terms of how they are released. For example, 100% of the microplastics in a rinse-off cosmetic product can be assumed to be releases down-the-drain, whilst this varies for different leave-on cosmetic products from approximately 10 to 70%, as microplastics are also disposed in municipal solid waste. In comparison, 1.5% of the microplastics in consumer paints are assumed to be released down the drain (with the remainder forming a film and ceasing to be microplastics).

The persistence and the potential for adverse effects or bioaccumulation of microplastics is a cause for concern. Once released, microplastics are felt to be extremely persistent in the environment, lasting thousands of years, and they are practically impossible to remove. ECHA’s assessment found that intentionally added microplastics are most likely to accumulate in terrestrial environments, as the particles concentrate in sewage sludge that is frequently applied as fertiliser. A much smaller proportion of these microplastics is released directly to the aquatic environment.

Data available on effects is limited, particularly for the terrestrial environment, which makes risk assessment difficult. Due to their small size, microplastics and nano-plastics – which are even smaller particles that are created from the further degradation of microplastics – may be readily ingested and thereby enter the food chain. The potential effects on human health are, however, still not well understood.

Overall, it is believed that the use of microplastics in products that result in release to the environment are not adequately controlled.

ECHA has assessed the socio-economic impact of the proposed restriction and is aware that the restriction is likely to result in different costs depending on the type of product affected. However, implementing the restriction is expected to be cost-effective in all sectors, including the agricultural sector, identified in the proposal as the biggest source of intentionally added microplastics.

Several EU Member States have already introduced bans on the use of microplastics in certain types of products, largely concerning wash-off cosmetic products. In submitting the dossier, it was concluded that the risks associated with EU-manufactured or imported mixtures containing microplastics need to be addressed on a Union-wide basis.

The proposed restriction states that “polymers shall not, from [the yet unscheduled date of] entry into force, be placed on the market as a substance on its own or in a mixture as a microplastic in a concentration equal to or greater than [0.01]% w/w.”

Exemptions from this restriction are foreseen, e.g., where microplastics are contained by technical means throughout their use to prevent releases to the environment, or where microplastics are permanently modified so as to no longer be microplastics, or where they are permanently incorporated into a solid matrix at the point of use.

In the case of cosmetic products, the restriction measure is felt to be justified for ‘microbeads’ contained in rinse-off products (i.e. microplastics with an exfoliating or cleansing function) with no transitional arrangements, as industry is expected to voluntarily phase out their use by 2020. The measure is also deemed justified for other rinse-off and leave-on cosmetic products, with respectively four- and six year transitional periods, based on the similarity to the cost-effectiveness of previous restrictions for substances with similar concerns.

Similarly, for detergents and maintenance products using ‘microbeads’, the measure is felt to be justified with no transitional arrangements, as industry is expected to be able to phase out the use of microbeads as an abrasive by 2020.

A labelling requirement is foreseen to minimise releases to the environment for uses of microplastics where they are not inevitably released to the environment but where residual releases could occur if they are not used or disposed of appropriately. a reporting requirement is also foreseen, so as to improve the quality of information available to assess the potential for risks in the future.

For more information, please click on the following link for ECHA’s proposed restriction report.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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