Take a look around you and count all the plastic items you see. Plastic bottles, packaging, ballpoint pens, flasks, ... There are undoubtedly quite a few of them. And did you know that when these items end up in landfill, they will fall apart into smaller and smaller pieces? First in pieces of several centimetres, then smaller and smaller until they are barely visible to the naked eye. These tiny particles are the much-discussed 'microplastics'. But why are they so harmful?
What we discussed here in our introduction are 'secondary microplastics': crumbled pieces of plastic originating from larger items. In total, they represent 69 to 81 percent of all microplastics in our oceans. The remaining 15 to 31 percent belong to the so-called 'primary microplastics'. These are released through the wear and tear of fibres in synthetic clothing (such as fleece), abrasion from car tyres or from cosmetic products to which manufacturers have deliberately added microplastics. Do you remember the toothpaste with bright blue dots? These blue spheres are now banned in many countries because particles of plastic have penetrated our water, our bodies, our soil and our oceans far too easily.
After decades of primary and secondary microplastics all around us, without any legal framework, plastic is everywhere. The world is full of them, and so are we - literally. To give you an idea of the quantities: for every citizen of the world, 810 grams of tyre scraps end up in the air every year. In addition, one wash of five kilograms of synthetic clothing releases an average of 9 million microfibres, which are disposed of with the rinse water. And one exfoliation of the face with a beauty product containing microplastics accounts for 100,000 plastic particles, which end up in the sewers and in some places directly in the soil. In other words, our daily commute to work, combined with a scrub and a wash of synthetic clothing, is in itself a true environmental disaster.
Why are microplastics so bad?
Very simple: because thanks to years of enormous plastic use, they are everywhere today. A lot of litter and waste water ends up in the oceans, where the microplastics are ingested by animals. These animals are then eaten by humans and the microplastics (yes, you read it correctly) are also in your body. And thousands of plastic particles in your body, as you can probably guess, is not good news.
But how bad is the impact of plastic particles on our bodies? Because such a large presence of plastic in the human body is relatively new, the effect on our health is still relatively unknown. What we do know is that the tiny pieces of plastic could affect our dna in the long term, which could have pretty far-reaching consequences.
What about policy?
At the end of 2018, EU member states and the European Parliament came to the agreement to ban disposable plastic and a strategy for plastic was adopted. Since the beginning of this year, 2021, single-use plastic products have been banned within the European Union. These include plastic cutlery, plates, straws and cotton buds. The rule is that reasonable alternatives, such as paper plates or cutlery, must exist for these products.
In addition, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) submitted a proposal to ban microplastics in 2019. Specifically, it called for a ban on intentionally added plastic particles in products such as cosmetics and detergents. In the meantime, a bill has been submitted, whereby the deliberate addition of microplastics will not be banned until 2030 at the earliest.
But not all member states are waiting for the go-ahead from the European Union. At the beginning of 2017, Sweden announced a ban on the sale of cosmetics with deliberately added plastic particles at the United Nations Ocean Conference. In the meantime, a whole series of other European and non-European countries have joined the Swedish initiative, although many of them are only concerned with washable cosmetics and oral products. Specifically, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Great Britain, Belgium, the United States, Canada, Austria, Australia, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway and Taiwan.