The Fight Against Microplastics and the European Commission

Environment - October 27, 2023

Microplastics Represent a Growing Threat to the Environment and Human Health Around the World and Europe Intends to Take Action.

The growing environmental threat is extremely small plastic particles, often less than 5 millimetres, which can arise from various sources, including plastic waste, personal care products, the textile industry and more. These tiny particles infiltrate aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and even the air we breathe, causing irreparable damage to living organisms and the environment in general. Recognizing this growing threat, the European Commission has taken significant initiatives to combat the problem of microplastics, which are often purposely added to various industrial products.

Microplastics are found in every corner of the planet, from ocean floors to mountain peaks due largely to the fact that microplastics can persist in the environment for hundreds of years and beyond.

The sources of these microparticles are many and varied and one of the main ones is connected to the conventional plastics which fragment over time due to the action of atmospheric agents, such as the sun and wind. Furthermore, common consumer products, such as detergents, cosmetics and cleaning products, often contain microplastics in the form of beads or suspended particles, added on purpose to improve product effectiveness. Other sources include wear and tear from car tires, the release of plastic fibres from synthetic fabrics during washing, and the dispersion of plastic pellets used in the manufacturing industry.

Microplastics pose a threat to human health, the environment and aquatic organisms, from marine fauna to fish, which can ingest these particles, with potentially serious consequences. Microplastics can accumulate in the tissues of organisms, compromising their health and even ending up in widely consumed food, representing a real contamination. Such small plastic fragments can still release toxic chemicals, such as plasticizers, which can harm surrounding organisms and ecosystems. Plastic particles can be carried by the wind, ending up in the air we breathe, and can pollute the soil, affecting plant growth and the quality of agricultural land. The dispersion of microplastics into the terrestrial environment can also have negative effects on wildlife living in these habitats.

The European Commission has recognized the urgency of tackling the problem of microplastics and has undertaken a series of initiatives to combat the spread of these harmful particles. One of the key initiatives was the adoption of the “Plastics in a Circular Economy” strategy, which aims to reduce the single-use plastics and promote the recycling and reuse of related materials. This strategy is part of the European Green Deal, an ambitious plan to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050.

The European Commission has also proposed a real Circular Economy Law which establishes clear objectives for the reduction of microplastics added to products. This law requires products containing microplastics to be phased out of the European market, introducing strict limits for microplastics in cosmetics, detergents and personal care products. Another important initiative was the signing of the Voluntary Agreement between the European cosmetics, detergents and personal care products industry, in relation to added microplastics, according to which companies will undertake to gradually eliminate harmful particles from their products within a certain period of time.

The European Commission has also invested in research and monitoring to better understand the scale of the microplastic problem and identify the main sources, and such scientific studies are already providing crucial data to develop effective policies to manage the problem. Although the European Commission’s initiatives have been welcomed by the majority of environmental bodies involved in the cause, there are also challenges and criticisms to be faced relating especially to the effective implementation of policies and laws. Ensuring that companies comply with the limits and targets set by the European Commission requires constant monitoring and effective sanctions for violations. The problem of microplastics is global, and the actions taken by the European Commission, while important, cannot solve the problem alone. It is essential to promote international cooperation to address the flow of microplastics worldwide by informing people about the health problems they can cause.

Alessandro Fiorentino