EU needs more research to legislate on microplastics

Greenpeace and other NGO’s are pushing the EU for measures against microplastic pollution. Bans were already made in the US and the Netherlands, with the UK on the way. But the EU is still considering if a ban is necessary and exploring the possibility of other measures.

By Gacia Trtrian, Peter Skovbjerg Jensen and Nadja Dam Jensen

Everyday tiny pieces of plastic get washed out in the drain and end up in the ocean. The so called microplastics are found in many everyday things like clothes, cosmetics and tyres. They’re even found in most kinds of toothpaste.

Several countries like the United States and the Netherlands have already made bans on some microplastics, while Canada and the United Kingdom are currently working on bans. However, the European Union is yet to make proposals for a ban.

Many NGO’s are pushing the EU to take measures on the problem. Some companies have even taken their own measure to limit the release of microplastics. The EU, however, is waiting for results of several studies, before they can begin the process of making legislation.

Oceans full of plastic

Plastic pieces smaller than 5 mm are defined as microplastics or microbeads. Some manufactures use these tiny pieces of plastic, also called microbeads, in their products to achieve different effects. These effects include scrubbing, in creams, and whitening effects in toothpaste.

Other kinds of microplastics come from more indirect sources like clothes made from synthetic fabrics, artificial grass of football fields and car tires. Microplastics are released from these sources as they disintegrate.

While a lot of countries have focused on limiting and banning the use of bigger disposable plastics, microplastics have not received as much focus. Like bigger pieces of plastics, microplastics are seen as a threat to the environment that also damage the marine and coastal life.

“We already know that 700 species of marine animals are adversely affected by bigger plastics, presumptions are that about 1 to 1.5 million animals die from plastics every year.

Microplastics are instead found at the base of the food chain where they affect smaller animals like oyster and mussels. But because it affects the base of the food chain, it will also affect higher levels in the food chain,” says Colin Janssen, Lab Director of the Laboratory of Environmental Toxicology and Professor at Ghent university in Belgium.

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Microplastics can sometimes be seen in your toothpaste as small beads. Photo: Nadja Dam Jensen

Greenpeace wants more measures taken

Greenpeace is one of many NGO’s that have worked towards measures being taken on the problem. The focus of Greenpeace has especially been on microplastics in consumer products. They argue that especially microbeads used in toothpaste and body scrubs are unnecessary and should be banned.

While Greenpeace have already secured a Government commitment in the United Kingdom, where a ban is expected by the end of 2017, they are still working towards getting the EU to commit to a solution.

“This places the EU slightly behind the curve of some national governments stepping up on this issue, though it’s good to see it being taken seriously,” says Fiona Nicholls, Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace UK in an email.
“We’re continuing the campaign, calling for the ban to include any household products which could send plastics down the drain, past filtration systems and into the sea.”

EU still looking for major source

The European Union will be working towards a targeted strategy on plastics and microplastics, mentioned EU Commissioner of Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, in a speech at an Our Oceans conference on September 16.

Though the EU is criticised for being behind other countries in making legislation, the EU insists that more research is needed before taking measures against microplastics.

“We believe that it is a problem. But in order to take measures we first need to clearly define what the problem is. Is the problem microplastics in general? Is it microplastics in cosmetics? Microplastics from car tyres? We need to figure out the major source,” says Policy Officer of Directorate General Environment, Michail Papadoyannakis.

Greenpeace does agree that more research is needed on the topic of microbeads.

“There’s definitely more research needed in many areas around the harm which microplastics can cause to marine life and to humans – but it’s the latter area which is much less known.”

Nicholls also stated that though there is enough evidence about the impact of microplastics on marine life, more can be done to provide scientific evidence of the microplastics ending up in the food chain and in seafood consumed by humans.

Dick Vethaak, toxicologist and former EU researcher, says that there is not enough research for the EU to take useful measures.

One reason why not enough research is being done to see the effects of microplastics on people, and not just marine life is because, Dick Vethaak says, “the microplastics problem is seen in the EU as an environmental problem, not as a human health problem.”

A clash of scientific opinions

There is ongoing debate in the scientific community on the kind of research being done. The main focus of the debate is the sponge-like quality of microplastics.

Some scientists claim that microplastics act as a sponge, absorbing toxins from their surrounding environment.

They claim that when these tiny pieces of plastic enter into different organisms, including people, the chemicals absorbed are then released in the stomach and into the organism.

The methods of research done to support this claim are criticised by other researchers in the community.

Colin Janssen is one of the researchers who disagree with the research methods being used by researchers supporting the claim.

He says that the absorption property of the microplastics would not show if research was done on samples collected from realistic concentrations of microplastics and realistic concentrations of chemicals, instead of controlled labs. “The assumption of the danger of microplastics associated with chemicals, is in our opinion not correct,” he says.

Ban may not be solution

The European Union is still not sure whether there will be a ban on microplastics or not. They are still considering which measures would be most helpful in solving the problem and preventing more plastics from contaminating the ocean.

“We now have a quite good picture about microplastics in cosmetics and also a broad overview of microplastics in other products and sources. What needs to be done is to make a further analysis of these additional sources. So not only in cosmetics, but also in paint, car tires, synthetic textiles. We need to analyse these sources more. This is what we want to do now in the context of the strategy for plastics,” says Michail Papadoyannakis from the EU commission.

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