EU Parliament targets microplastics in new bans to combat plastic pollution

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11 Jul 2018 --- The European Parliament’s environment committee has voted to strengthen the European Commission’s overall plans to cut plastic pollution, under the so-called Plastics Strategy. The new ban targets microplastics – less than five-millimeter fragments of plastic –which have been found to cause huge destruction to marine ecosystems. It also significantly recognizes that the popularization of biodegradable and compostable alternatives to single-use plastics will not deliver a solution to the global issue of plastic pollution.

FoodIngredientsFirst speaks to Mauro Anastasio, a spokesperson for the European Environmental Bureau and a member of the Rethink Plastic alliance about the significance of the new EU vote: “It’s a step in the right direction and we are pleased with the support shown in Parliament. Proposals to ban microplastics and to curb the enthusiasm around biodegradable plastics underline the need to focus on prevention rather than on false and temporary solutions.”

“However, the full European Parliament will have to vote in September on the environment committee’s response to the Commission’s proposal. There’s still a long way to go.”

Anastasio went on to explain why microplastics are being singled out in this latest round of EU discussion: “After the proposal of rather ambitious laws to phase out single-use plastics, a ban on microplastics must be the next natural step if politicians are serious about tackling plastic pollution holistically and in a meaningful way.”

“Microplastics pose a threat to people and the environment just as much as single-use plastics. In developed countries, they are a bigger source of marine plastic pollution than the more visible litter. A recent study found them in more than 90 percent of the most popular bottled water brands, a reason why the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced a health review,” he says.

“Micro and nanoplastics, like many types of plastic, contain harmful chemical additives that can easily migrate into food and drinks. When ingested, they can harm fish and mollusks and as a result, they can also very easily enter our food chain.”

“All across the world we see increasing awareness of the problem, so it’s not surprising that the Parliament is backing this idea. The proposal reminds me of Barack Obama’s ban on microbeads – a type of microplastic used in personal care products – the US, Sweden and the UK have also recently announced a ban on microbeads, noting that natural alternatives already exist.”

Anastasio also highlighted the significance of the proposal on biodegradable and compostable plastics: “Apart from the focus on microplastics, the Parliament proposed to recognize that biodegradable and compostable plastics do not prevent plastic waste in our oceans and should not be an excuse to keep using single-use plastics. We think this is a very significant proposal as we see a lot of confusion today around the role of biodegradable plastics in the circular economy.”

“People are induced to believe they are a solution by false advertisement and misleading statements. But the truth is that many of the so-called biodegradable plastics decompose at a similar pace as conventional plastics when littered in the environment.”

“Inaccurate claims about bioplastics can even aggravate the littering problem as they assume that the excessive use of even more plastic waste could be disposed of improperly,” he adds.

The environment committee called for a number of measures that go beyond the Commission’s original proposals, including:

  • A ban on microplastics in cosmetics, personal care, detergents and cleaning products by 2020, and minimum requirements to tackle other sources of microplastics.
  • A complete ban on oxo-degradable plastics – a source of microplastic pollution – by 2020.
  • A recognition that biodegradable and compostable plastics do not prevent plastic waste in our oceans and should not be an excuse to keep using single-use plastics.
  • Any financial contribution from taxing plastics should go towards preventing plastic waste generation.
  • The reduction of hazardous substances in plastics, to ensure that what is recycled is free from dangerous chemicals.

On behalf of the Rethink Plastic alliance, Meadhbh Bolger, Resource Justice Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, says: “The environment committee has recognized that the Commission’s plans to tackle plastic pollution must be strengthened to protect our oceans. Today’s vote gives a strong signal that more can and must be done to cut off the flood of plastics at source, and national governments across Europe must rise to the challenge.”

The European Environmental Bureau is one of the leading members of the Rethink Plastic Alliance, a coalition of NGOs working to reduce plastic pollution in the EU through ambitious laws.

Bolger continues: “There’s a lot of greenwashing going on to try and present bio-based and biodegradable plastics as a silver bullet – but this is a sideshow – distracting from the real solutions: reduction and reuse. Bio-based and biodegradable plastics pollute our beaches and seas just like conventional plastics and should be treated as such. It is hugely positive that the Parliament acknowledges this.”

Click to EnlargeHowever, the environment committee failed to back measures to tackle pollution from industrially-produced plastic pellets, which are melted down to make everyday plastic items. It also failed to support stronger economic incentives to reduce plastic production and consumption, the Rethink Plastic alliance states.

The full European Parliament will vote in September on the environment committee’s response to the Commission’s proposal.

In May, The European Commission announced new rules to combat increasing levels of plastic pollution in the oceans. The EU-wide rules aim to target the 10 highest polluting single-use products, which together constitute 70 percent of all marine litter items.

Recently, Starbucks and Seattle City eliminated single-use plastic straws in landmark moves. Seattle became the first major US city to do so.

Meanwhile, The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently investigating the potential risks of microplastics on human health after they were detected in the water products of 11 leading brands.

Read more about the potential threats of microplastics here.

By Joshua Poole

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