On January 30, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) proposed a restriction on microplastics intentionally added to products used by consumers or professionals. If passed, the proposed restriction would reduce microplastics released into the environment in the EU by around 400,000 tons over 20 years. Microplastics are currently defined as synthetic polymer particles that resist biodegradation and under 5mm in size. Microplastics became prevalent in many cosmetic products including face wash, but may also be present in detergents, paints, construction materials, medicine, agricultural products, etc. Although one can generally see microplastics in products, some packaging may not show the product within. Some common ingredients that signal the presence of microplastics include polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), and Nylon (PA).
Microplastics pose a problem because they enter into the food chain when fish and other animals ingest them and are in turn eaten by humans. The effect that microplastics pose to human health are not completely known. The impact of microplastics on the environment are also currently unknown, but microplastics take thousands of years to degrade and can accumulate over time. They easily enter into the wastewater system since they are often too small to be caught in any filters and can make their way into marine aquatic environments.
Several countries have imposed restrictions on some microplastics in products, mainly in the cosmetic sector. For instance, the United States passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. This legislation prohibited the sale or distribution of rinse-off cosmetics containing plastic microbeads. Manufacturers cannot produce such products as of July 1, 2017 nor introduce or deliver for introduction to interstate commerce as of July 1, 2018. Similar restrictions on nonprescription drugs go into effect one year later than the rule for cosmetics. The United Kingdom enacted legislation in 2017 to ban the sale of rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads.
Canada passed a ban on microbeads in toiletries back in 2017. The Canadian regulation bans the manufacture or import of toiletries with microbeads as of January 1, 2018. However, the ban begins as of July 1, 2018 for any natural health products or non-prescription drugs. The regulation also prohibits the sale of toiletries with microbeads as of July 1, 2018, although the sale for natural health products or non-prescription drugs with microbeads will go into effect July 1, 2019. The regulations do not apply to prescription drugs. Additionally, importers who are transporting through Canada from a place outside Canada to another place outside Canada do not contravene the regulation.
New Zealand passed the Waste Minimisation (Microbeads) Regulations 2017. These regulations prohibit the selling or manufacture of a prohibited wash-off product in New Zealand as of June 7, 2018. Prohibited wash-off products include microbeads intended to exfoliate or clean all or part of a person’s body; abrasive cleaning of any area, surface, or thing; impact the appearance of the product. The prohibition does not apply to medical devices or medicine.
Sweden implemented a ban on cosmetic products with microbeads intended to have a cleansing, polishing, or peeling effect. Included microbeads are less than 5mm in size and insoluble in water in items that can rinse-off or spit-out and used on hair, teeth, mucous membrane, or skin. Plastic microbeads made from naturally occurring polymers such as cellulose are not included in the Swedish ban. The ban went into force July 1, 2018; however, products on sale in Sweden before that date may be sold until January 1, 2019.
Australia’s Environment Minister promised to ban microbeads if industry failed to voluntary remove them from products by July 2018, but so far, there has been no legislation to this effect.