About the author:
Jędrzej Nadolny is a public affairs consultant who specialises in EU chemical regulations and is currently working alongside Europe’s most forward-thinking companies to guide and consolidate their green transitions.
Get to know Jędrzej and Ohana’s complete team of expert consultants.
EU Microplastics Initiatives: A Deep Dive
Nearly twenty years have passed since the term ‘microplastics’ was coined by British marine scientist Richard Thompson, and yet it is only now being recognised and understood. With the alarming news that such particles have been found in living humans’ lungs, blood and even in breastmilk, the issue of microplastics should indeed be a point of attention for the general public, but even more so for business organisations and policy-makers.
Recognising its imminent impact on the European landscape, in this article I’m bringing you an overview of the subject of microplastics, with details on what can be expected from Brussels, and why this could prove to be a special challenge for legislators on a global scale.
Want someone with deep experience and connections in the EU to help guide your sustainability strategy? Get in touch!
What are Microplastics?
Defined as small pieces of plastic debris which result from the disposal and breakdown of consumer goods and industrial waste, microplastics can be as tiny as they are dangerous. From road markings to personal care products, nearly every plastic-containing item you see around you can release particles that end up in our water systems and offer potential physical and toxicological risks to organisms.
Less than 5mm in length, microplastics are hazardous for humans and for nature, and it is estimated that over the past 50 years, 14 million tonnes of microplastics have accumulated on our ocean floors, with release rates increasing year after year. Just as with climate change, it is absolutely urgent that we start taking tangible action to prevent the release of microplastics to protect animal and human lives, as well as environmental balance.
Intentional vs Unintentional Release of Microplastics
Not all microplastics are formed in the same way. They can be a product of either unintentional or intentional release.
Microplastics resulting from the fragmentation of a large piece of plastic material fall under the unintentional release category and are, for that reason, a lot more difficult to prevent. In contrast, some microplastics are considered to be of intentional release, as they are deliberately added as a product ingredient to achieve a specific property. This is often the case with personal care and cosmetic products, such as mascaras, body scrubs, foundations and even lip glosses.
The distinction between intentional and unintentional release is especially important for the development of effective legislation targeting the issue of microplastic pollution; more on this later.
Microplastics And the Textile Industry
While the exact figures are still up for debate, experts all over the world agree that textiles are among the largest polluters when it comes to microplastics. Research shows that between 16% and 35% of microplastics released into our ecosystems come from textiles, with 200,000 and 500,000 tonnes reaching our oceans every year.
Microplastic (Microfibre) Release from Textiles
Microplastic particles resulting from the breakdown of textile fabrics have a distinctive fibre-like shape. For this reason, they are commonly referred to as ‘microfibres’.
It is during the first few washes of new garments that microfibres are most intensely released, with discharge rates decreasing over successive washes. Since microfibres are not retained by washing machines, they will travel with the wastewater to the treatment plants, which are also not currently required to be equipped to filter all the different types of microfibres and prevent them from reaching our water systems.
However, our laundry is not the only pathway for microfibre release. Some particle release also happens during textile production, wearing and when the fabrics are disposed of and landfilled.
Natural vs Synthetic Microfibres: An Important Note
When speaking of textiles, it’s essential to point out that both natural and synthetic fabrics release microfibres into the environment, although nearly all of the research available has focused on synthetic microfibres.
EU-based environmental NGOs, such as Changing Markets Foundation, believe that the EU policy action should prioritise synthetic fibres, referring to their fossil fuel origin and well-documented impacts. This contrasts with the views of most of the textile industry members. As discussed in our interview with the industry organisations EOG and FESI, the lack of knowledge regarding the dynamics and impacts of natural microfibre release is a strong point of concern that should be addressed. EOG and FESI are afraid that, since all the policies under development in the EU deal exclusively with the subject of synthetic microfibres, we run the risk of later realising that the measures implemented missed the mark by not looking at the full picture.
EU Policy Initiatives on Microplastics
The commitment to solving the issue of pollution by microplastics was first demonstrated by the European Commission in 2018, with the publishing of the EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy and reinforced in 2022 through the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. While the latter understandably heavily targets the subject of fast fashion, it makes it clear that microplastic release is a subject which concerns the textile industry as a whole. The strategy does, however, focus exclusively on synthetic microplastics, so companies producing natural fibre textiles will not be affected by the measures currently under development.
Here are the main EU initiatives addressing microplastic pollution and what we can expect.
EU Microplastics Regulation
The EU Microplastics Regulation is currently being prepared by the European Commission, but based on stakeholder discussions it’s already possible to have an idea of what’s coming.
The initiative which should finally deliver on the EU Strategy for Plastics’ promises is expected to be published in mid-May 2023, and could contain measures such as the following:
- Industrial pre-washing treatments to be mandatory for textiles at manufacturing sites, to guarantee that the initial largest amounts of microplastics are released under controlled conditions;
- New labelling obligations for products to carry a clear statement that they do cause the release of microplastics when that is the case;
- Introduction of washing machine filters that capture microfibre particles;
- Implementation of horizontal eco-design requirements.
It is important to add that besides textiles, the Microplastics Regulation will also impose obligations on producers of tyres and plastics pellets.
Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation
Presented in March 2022, the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR) currently under debate by the European institutions, will impose a range of sustainability-related design requirements for products sold within the block’s borders.
As an expansion of the existing Ecodesign Directive, the proposal brings a new set of information and sustainability requirements to be met by organisations doing business in the EU, including on product durability, repairability, waste generation, etc. The concrete product-specific requirements will be developed by the European Commission and various stakeholders and published from 2024 onwards.
The matter of microplastics shows up within the ESPR as part of the waste generation criteria. This means that, in product-specific legislation, the EU may impose certain design requirements to limit the release of microplastics, such as by determining microplastic emission limits in finished products. A ban on high microplastic release materials could also encourage a switch towards natural and biodegradable fibres.
Finally, ESPR may require textile brands to share information about microplastic release within the Digital Product Passport.
Product Environmental Footprint
The Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) is a methodology developed by an EU body formed by different stakeholders, known as the PEF Technical Secretariat, and which uses the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach as a base to measure environmental impacts at a product level.
There are currently sixteen PEF categories that will measure a product’s impact in different areas, such as acidification or land use. A number of stakeholders currently advocate for the inclusion of microplastic release as an additional impact category. The possibility is being considered by the Technical Secretariat and I believe it could indeed be implemented during a future revision, around 2025.
The REACH Regulation is a policy developed by the EU to protect humans and our ecosystems from the risks posed by the use of chemicals.
The REACH restriction of microplastics is the only proposal being discussed by the EU to target the intentional release of such particles, as well as the only one which will not have any impact on the textile industry. In a nutshell, the idea is to completely ban the intentional addition of microplastics to goods (such as some cosmetic products) produced in, or imported into the EU.
After a series of delays, the European Commission published the restriction proposal in August 2022. The work to finalise the restriction will continue in 2023.
EU Microplastic Initiatives: the Missing Links
Although the EU’s efforts towards reducing and preventing microplastic pollution are very welcomed and relevant, there are a number of questions within the proposed measures which require more attention. Here are some examples of policy measures currently under debate and the respective issues identified:
- Banning on high microplastics release materials – At this stage, there are still no standardised methods to measure the release of microfibres during textile washing.
- Establishing microplastics release limits during production – There are still no standardised methods to measure fibre release within wastewater at a manufacturing level, and it might not be possible to enforce this type of requirement for companies which manufacture their goods in non-EU countries.
- Pushing for a switch towards natural fibres – Natural materials are treated with chemicals during production. The impacts of these processes on the biodegradability of the fibres are currently unknown and should be scientifically investigated.
- Pushing for a switch towards fibres based on biodegradable plastic – these might not biodegrade in all conditions, for example, they might behave differently when lying on our seabeds.
- Introduction of improved washing machine filters – There remains a question of how the microplastics collected by washing machine filters will be dealt with.
- New microplastic-related labelling requirements – We are still missing a standardised test method capable of substantiating microplastic-related green claims.
How We Can Prepare for What’s Coming
In a practical sense, my advice for European organisations who wish to prepare for the inevitable upcoming changes connected to microplastic legislation would be to closely monitor how the proposals progress and follow the development of methods for testing microplastic release (e.g. the ISO standard).
Happily, this is already happening. The Cross Industry Agreement (CIA), an industry coalition of the textile brands associations EURATEX, FESI and EOG, has developed a test method to systematically measure microplastic loss from fabrics under laundry conditions. The standard is currently under publication by the International Standardisation Organisation (ISO).
Additionally, companies can set up an internal task force to assess microfibre release reduction opportunities via:
- The optimisation of textile sewing and cutting during production;
- Limiting the use of synthetic materials with high microplastics emissions wherever possible;
- Providing laundry guidelines to consumers.
As with all other sustainability matters, solving the issue of microplastics is one which will require a collective effort. Consumers should be mindful of how they choose and care for purchased goods, public authorities will need to improve wastewater management systems, and manufacturing companies should look into improving material selection and product design to minimise the microplastic release at every level of the value chain. However, as I see it, one of the most important initial steps in dealing with microplastics on a global scale should be taken by the textile industry, and would be to develop a standardised and widely implementable method to compare the release of microplastics from various materials.
Speaking of taking collective action, the good news is that, although the EU seems to be leading the way, the debate on microplastic pollution is also taking place internationally and within the UN, as part of the development of the Global Plastics Treaty, which is to be finalised by the end of 2024.
Want someone with deep experience and connections in the EU to help guide your sustainability strategy? Get in touch!
Join our newsletter to keep up to date with the latest news and information coming out of the EU.