The European Chemicals Agency (Echa) has proposed a draft project that would remove up to 90% of the intentional microplastic pollution occurring due to products sourced from EU countries. The proposal, which ought to come into effect in 2020 if it jumps through all the regulatory hoops, would eliminate 36,000 tonnes of plastic pollution yearly, and up to 400,000 tonnes over a 20-year period.

Credit: Flickr, Oregon State University.

Credit: Flickr, Oregon State University.

Microplastics are tiny plastic waste, ranging from 5 millimeters down to 100 nanometers in diameter. They’re found in surprising number products — particularly in beauty and cleaning products — but are also produced unintentionally through the wear and tear of plastic pollution. Since mass production of plastics began in the 1940s, marine microplastic contamination has been a growing problem — scientists estimate that about 2-5% of all microplastics eventually end up in the seas.

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Because they’re not biodegradable, microplastics clog the digestive tracts of creatures such as turtles and birds — even mosquitoes. Ultimately, microplastics travel up the food chain eventually reaching our guts. For instance, microplastics have been found in canned fish, and even in sea salt, so it’s quite likely that we are exposed to tiny plastic pollution on a regular basis. A small study that sampled human stools from various countries confirmed that microplastics are contaminating our food supply.

In an effort to curb microplastic pollution, the EU plans on phasing out the use of the tiny particles in products where they’re added intentionally, but are not crucial ingredients. Last year, the UK enforced a ban on microbeads in cosmetics and beauty care products. The new project, however, covers a much broader spectrum of applications, and includes microplastics in detergents, paints, polishes, and fertilizers. It’s not clear at this point if the UK would also be required to adhere to such new rules on microplastic production after it leaves the European Union, although that would be desirable seeing how “plastic knows no borders.”

Companies would be offered a 5-year window to overhaul their production lines in order to accommodate the new guidelines. For the time being, Echa’s scientific committee is busy reviewing the proposal before sending an official document to the European Commission. It might take any time between one and two years before this proposal might come into force.

Unfortunately, this much welcomed environmental policy will do very little to solve the bulk of the EU’s microplastic pollution. Researchers estimate that about 176,000 tonnes of microplastics end up in EU waterways and sea due to unintentional production, such as road tire wear and pre-production pellets. The next step will involve targeting unintentional microplastic production at its source.