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Echa definition of microplastics ‘too broad’ – Cefic

Products - Body scrub (microbeads) cosmetics © Nik_Merkulov -

Cefic has criticised the current definition of microplastics in Echa’s restriction proposal for being "too broad", which could leave "room for interpretation" making implementation and enforcement of restrictions "challenging".

On 30 January, Echa outlined its restriction proposal for intentionally added microplastics in all consumer and professional use products, following a European Commission request under its plastics strategy.

Echa’s proposal defines microplastics as materials consisting of solid polymer-containing particles less than 5mm in diameter, to which additives or other substances may have been added.

In its comments to Chemical Watch Cefic insisted on the need for scientific evidence on the hazards and risks associated with intentionally added microplastics to justify the restriction proposal.

According to the association, it should focus on those areas where "unacceptable risks" have been clearly identified, as required under REACH. But this has not yet happened and "available scientific evidence is still under development", Cefic added.

Additionally, the impact of microplastics on water or soil needs to be "further examined and then regulated", it said, citing the Science Advice for Policy by European Academies' recent report.

Prepared by a scientific working group advising the Commission and published last January, this says "little is known" about the ecological and human health risks from microplastics. And while "significant, negative effects" have been shown under laboratory conditions, there is not scientific evidence proving that the same happens in nature.

However, it points out that if they continue to be emitted without any restriction, "there could be widespread future risks in most locations".

Cefic is currently working on a project ‘ECO49’, which aims to develop methodologies for assessing environmental risks from microplastics in order to "close the scientific gap".

The project is part of the Long-range Research Initiative (LRI) and will run for the next three years, beginning in Q1 2019. Cefic will collaborate with the International Council of Chemicals Associations (Icca) and European Centre for Ecotoxicology and Toxicology of Chemicals (Ecetoc) on the work.

Cosmetics sector

Echa’s restriction proposal will have an impact on several sectors, including cosmetics, detergents, medical devices and oil and gas.

Trade association Cosmetics Europe agreed with Cefic’s criticism of the definition. Under its terms non-plastic substances used in cosmetics might "fall under the scope of any future restriction", it told Chemical Watch.

"It should be remembered that all plastics are polymers but not all polymers are plastics," and the proposal should focus only on the issue "to be addressed", which is plastic, it added.  

The scope is "too broad", the trade body said, and could lead to "very high socio-economic and consumer impacts". In particular, this may cause "disproportionate" impact on key products, such as leave-on cosmetics.

These products are estimated to contribute to 2% of the overall emissions of intentionally added microplastics. But, it added, the proposal says "79.3% of the costs of the overall restriction will be borne by leave-on cosmetics products".

Furthermore, it does not take into account that there are "no known alternatives for many critical functions", it said. Neither does it recognise the possible impact on SMEs and "makes assumptions about consumer preferences".

Cosmetics Europe called on Echa to ensure that any measure put in place for cosmetic products is "truly proportionate" and "does not restrict the ability of the European industry to innovate".

Questions about oil

Nik Robinson, secretary of the European Oilfield Speciality Chemicals Association (Eosca), said he welcomes the proposal "as a starting point". But he is concerned that there are some "data errors" in the report, which he hopes to discuss with Echa "and seek amendments where necessary".

The proposal provides a derogation for industrial sites, but will require monitoring, reporting and review, "all of which already occur as part of the Ospar Harmonised Mandatory Control System (HMCS) for the use and discharge of offshore chemicals (Decision 2000/2)," Mr Robinson added.

While the proposal details need further consideration, "it would seem that Echa has recognised that there are already stringent systems in place for the selection, permitting and reporting of use and discharge of substances in oil field applications", he added.

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