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ECHA proposes action on microplastics


The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has, as requested by the European Commission a year ago as part of the EU plastics strategy, submitted a proposal for the restriction of microplastic particles that are intentionally added to mixtures used by consumers and professionals. If this is adopted, the agency claimed, it could reduce the amount of microplastics released to the environment in the EU by about 400,000 tonnes/year over 20 years.


The proposal covers the market placement of microplastics “on their own or in mixtures, where their use will inevitably result in release to the environment, irrespective of conditions of use”. There are also labelling labelling requirement to minimise release in uses where it is not inevitable but could occur if they are not used or disposed of properly, and reporting requirement to improve the information available.


“Microplastics are a growing concern to a number of human rights. The steps proposed by ECHA are necessary to help ensure present and future generations can enjoy what is their human right: a clean, healthy and sustainable environment,” said Baskut Tuncak, the UN’s special rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste.


ECHA noted that there is cause for concern because of microplastics’ extreme persistence and potential for adverse effects or bioaccumulation, although their long-term effects on human health and the environment are as yet little understood. It also noted that most intentionally added microplastics accumulate in terrestrial environments, mainly in sewage sludge used as fertiliser, rather than in the oceans.


In the proposal, microplastics are defined as synthetic polymer particles of <5 mm that resist (bio)degradation. It covers uses in many sectors, including cosmetics, detergents and maintenance, paints and coatings, construction, medical devices and diagnostics, agriculture and horticulture, and oil and gas. ECHA added that there will be associated costs but expects the restriction to be cost-effective in all sectors.

Specific transitional arrangements have been proposed for some applications. Microplastics - other than microbeads, which are already the subject of a voluntary phase-out by 2020 - will have to be substituted in detergents, waxes and polishes within five years, while in cosmetics there are different four- and six-year deadlines, other than for microbeads used in rinse-off cosmetics, which are also being phased out and have been the subject of restrictions by some individual member states.

The next steps will be a conformity check by ECHA’s scientific committees in March, then a public consultation on the dossier and scientific opinions from the agency’s Risk Assessment and Socio-Economic Analysis committees. If the proposal clears all these hurdles, it should return to the EC for a decision in early 2020.


Environmental NGOs broadly welcomed the measure but some regard it as too limited or lacking in urgency. Some particularly pointed to the 176,000 tonnes/year of microplastics that are unintentionally released into surface waters in the EU, mostly from road tyre wear and preproduction pellets, dwarfing the amount added intentionally.

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