Proposal for a restriction on microplastics

Against the background of increasing marine pollution by plastics, the EU Commission requested the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in 2015 to draw up a proposal for a restriction on microplastics under REACH (annex XVII).

Proposal for a restriction on microplastics. Image source: zatevakhin -
Proposal for a restriction on microplastics. Image source: zatevakhin - -

By Kerstin Heitmann, Umco

The proposal concerns intentionally added microplastics. It focuses on products which release the plastic particles to the environment directly or via public wastewater treatment plants. These include cosmetic products (e.g. facial scrubs) and household cleaners (e.g. scouring agents), which are rinsed off during or after use and are disposed of down the drain. The rationale behind it is to reduce the release of poorly biodegradable microplastics into the environment because they are absorbed by organisms and can enter the human food chain.

The restriction proposal therefore also forms part of the “EU strategy for plastics (2018)”. Some Member States have already enacted similar restrictions, and the EU-wide approach is therefore also seeking to achieve harmonisation.

The proposal will continue to allow microplastics in products that do not release the particles. However, there will be labelling and reporting requirements on the fate of the plastics. At this point, the ECHA proposal goes beyond the original mandate and the existing regulations of the Member States. It provides for transition periods for certain products. The labelling requirements will apply 18 months, and the reporting obligations 12 months, after the restriction enters into force (for more information:

Definition of microplastics

The definition of what exactly will be restricted is not a trivial matter. Unlike most other restrictions in Annex XVII, defined substances that can be identified by a CAS number are not expressly named. Rather, the polymer definition of the REACH Regulation (Article 3, No. 5) in combination with geometric parameters of particles (see extract below’) will apply. Consequently, all types of solid polymers or polymer-containing materials can be affected. Derogations are proposed for naturally occurring polymers and readily biodegradable plastics as well as liquid polymers. However, categorising these is not always easy.

Extract from the definition of microplastics in the Annex XV Dossier

“Microplastic” means a material consisting of solid polymer-containing particles, to which additives or other substances may have been added, and where > 1 % w/w of particles have (i) all dimensions 1 nm ≤ x ≤ 5 mm, or (ii), for fibres, a length of 3 nm ≤  x ≤ 15 mm and a length to diameter ratio of > 3.

“Particle” is a minute piece of matter with defined physical boundaries; a defined physical boundary is an interface.

“Polymer-containing particle” means either (i) a particle of any composition with a continuous polymer surface coating of any thickness or (ii) a particle of any composition with a polymer content of  ≥ 1 % w/w.”

Relevance to the paint industry

Polymers as powders or particles are an essential ingredient of many coating products and emulsion paints. In the end-application, the plastic particles are fused or crosslinked on a surface to form a solid film that no longer meets the definition of microplastic. Thus, there is no intentional release of plastic particles under foreseeable conditions of use in this case and so their continued use will be permitted. However, the proposed restriction stipulates that, in addition to the information requirements already imposed on them, products containing microplastics will have to be labelled accordingly and will have to be provided with instructions on how the release of microplastics may be avoided. All manufacturers and users will be required to submit comprehensive annual reports to the ECHA to allow tracking of the use and possible release into the environment. In the current draft version, this requirement will also include professional users such as painters and other craftsmen.

The Association of the German Paint and Printing Ink Industry (VdL) has criticised in particular the high level of bureaucracy arising from the additional labelling and reporting requirements. It also calls into question their usefulness in terms of the objectives of the restriction. The VdL believes that the current regulations are fully adequate and, in fact, that only up to 10 % of the plastic particles detected in the environment can be traced back to intentionally used microplastics.

The greater proportion by far comes from the degradation of plastic products (e.g. abrasion of tyres, clothing, surfaces of sports pitches, synthetic textiles) and plastic waste (macroplastics) that has reached the environment and is ground down into secondary microplastics by mechanical degradation and weathering. The proposed restriction will therefore only cover a small proportion of releases to the environment.

Also of interest

Event tip: The European Coatings Regulatory Forum in November in Brussels gives insights into regulatory developments effecting the coatings industry

Reading tip: Interview: “An on-going decrease of biocidal active substance applications can be expected”

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