13 Nov 2015
German Government Publishes Study Adding to Calls to Ban Microplastics in Cosmetics, Other Consumer Goods
On 29 September 2015, the German Federal Environmental Agency announced the publication of its study concerning the amount of plastic particles present in the environment. Hong Kong and mainland Chinese traders should be alerted to this publication, which is yet another development increasing the awareness of the dangers that microplastics pose to the environment. The matter may very likely translate into a regulatory proposal reducing or even banning the use of microplastics in consumer products.
Companies active in the production of cosmetics will be familiar with microplastics, also called ‘plastic particles’, which are made of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon. Microplastics serve to improve the coverage and viscosity of substances. While microplastics are mainly used by the cosmetics industry, often in the shape of so-called microbeads, it has many more fields of application, such as in coatings, drugs and foodstuffs.
According to research published by the European Commission, since plastics are resistant to environmental breakdown, microplastics are of particular concern because they can unintentionally be eaten by marine life and thereby enter the food chain. Microplastics have been detected throughout the ocean from the surface to the seafloor.
The German Government’s study differentiates between two types of microplastics in the environment: primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are produced in microscopic size and are used in, among other products, cosmetics. Secondary microplastics are breakdown pieces of larger plastic debris. The breakdown occurs during the use-phase of products such as textiles, paint and tyres, or once the items have been released into the environment.
The German study provides some figures as to the quantity of microplastics used for specific product groups produced in Germany. According to the study, soaps and detergent substances for body care is the product group for which the largest amount of plastic particles is used, with 177 tonnes of plastic particles per year. This is followed by shower gels and liquid soaps, for the production of which 150 tonnes of plastic particles per year are used; skin care and sunscreen products, for which 39 tonnes are used; and dental hygiene products for which 98 tonnes are used, each year.
Overall, 500 tonnes of plastic particles made out of polyethylene are used by the German cosmetics industry each year, which constitutes a per capita consumption of 6.2 grams. This, multiplied by the number of the population of the EU (around 500 million inhabitants), would amount to a total of 3,125 tonnes of micro particles made of polyethylene that are believed on average to be used EU-wide.
The study determined that there is currently no information on the quantity of microplastics used in other fields of application. The study also established that there is a lack of reliable figures on the pollution and fragmentation of plastic waste, i.e. secondary microplastics, in Germany. However, in the context of estimations made in respect of the EU and globally, it can be assumed that secondary plastic particles play the biggest role in the pollution of the ocean globally. The study therefore concluded that primary plastic particles only make a small contribution to the pollution of the environment. To substantively reduce the release of plastic particles into the environment and in particular into the oceans, it is not sufficient to concentrate on their use in cosmetics. Rather, further measures are needed to drastically reduce plastic waste in the form of both primary and secondary plastic particles in the environment.
In another earlier development, in June 2015 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recommended a precautionary approach towards microplastics management, leading to an eventual phase-out and ban of their use in cosmetic products. The UNEP previously published a report which compiled currently available knowledge on the links between cosmetics and plastic pollution in the oceans. The report concluded that, for the last 50 years, micro particles of plastics have been used in personal care products and cosmetics, replacing natural alternatives in a large number of product formulations.
The report further stated that the particles cannot be collected for recycling and do not decompose in wastewater treatment facilities. The particles end up in the oceans where they fragment and remain. According to the report, the plastic particles may take hundreds of years to completely degrade. The UNEP report also provides recommendations for producers, asking them to take into account the impact of product ingredients on the natural environment during the design phase of products.
In May 2015, Karmenu Vella, the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, warned in a speech at the Microplastics conference in Brussels about microplastics invading the ecosystems, mixing with sand on beaches, weakening water systems and penetrating the food chain. He called plastic pollution the most striking symptom of a resource-inefficient economy. According to Vella, as part of the EU’s Circular Economy Strategy, it will likely have to be ensured that components are designed to be repaired, re-used, remanufactured and then recycled and that there is a real market for secondary raw materials in the EU, including for plastics. Secondary raw materials are waste materials that have been identified for their potential for recycling or reprocessing, so as to generate raw materials, thus potentially displacing the use of primary materials.
Commissioner Vella’s speech was preceded by a Joint Statement issued by the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden in December 2014, to ban microplastics used in detergents and cosmetics in order to protect marine life. According to these four countries, although there is still some scientific uncertainty about the sources of contamination, enough is already known to take action against microplastics. The four countries argued that despite there being alternatives to microplastics for use in cosmetics and detergents, large amounts of microplastics are released onto the EU market. The Joint Statement further states that since a few global producers have already announced their phasing out of plastics in their products, a European ban on microplastics in cosmetics can be considered as a possible measure.
Representatives of the EU’s cosmetics industry have already publicly announced that the use of plastic micro particles in cosmetics will be discontinued on a voluntary basis. On 21 October 2015, Cosmetics Europe issued a recommendation to discontinue the “use [of microplastics] in wash-off cosmetic and personal care products for exfoliating and cleansing purposes” by 2020. Cosmetics Europe emphasised, in its statement, its intention to be in close partnership with the EU to study the matter further in order to find appropriate measures.
In 2012, Unilever initiated a phase-out of plastic scrub beads, completed, according to statements from Unilever, by January 2015. L’Oréal also intends to phase out its use of polyethylene microbeads. Since last year, products carrying the EU Ecolabel, which helps to identify products and services that have a reduced environmental impact throughout their life cycle, cannot contain micro plastics.
It has recently been reported that the European Commission will soon publish a study that is to determine what the options for regulatory actions in this area are. Hong Kong and mainland Chinese traders should be aware that in the context of the increasing awareness of the dangers of microplastics by governments, international organisations, civil society and even producers, the outcome of this study is likely to become the basis of a regulatory initiative, which will stipulate the reduction or possibly even the ban on the use of microplastics.