15th Dec 2017


Microplastics threat poses dilemma for new EU strategy

  • Zooplankton ingesting plastic microbeads. When plankton consume toxic plastic debris, it is likely that animals higher up the food chain will also be contaminated. (Photo: Verity White, Five Films)

Leading scientists and conservation groups have said the EU's plastics strategy must include "serious regulation" given the potential impact of microplastic pollution on human health.

The tiny particles – which come from degradation of larger pieces of plastic litter, pre-production pellets used by industry, car tyres, washed textiles and microbeads found in cosmetics – have been found in everything from sea salt and seafood to tap water and honey.

Currently there is no evidence to suggest that there is a food safety risk. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has played down any concerns over what it has referred to as an "emerging issue".

But experts urged the European Commission to apply the precautionary principle, and use its plastics strategy – due to be published this month – to deliver new laws to reduce their release and impacts.

"The problem is widescale and the concentrations are low," explained Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology at Plymouth University in the UK, "but if we carry on as normal and have this conversation again in 20 years' time we may well have reached concentration levels that are a concern."

Truckloads of plastic waste per minute

In the time it takes to read this article, three truckloads of plastic will have been dumped into the ocean. By 2030 this will have increased to two truckloads per minute; by 2050 it will be four.

Statistics like that have seen marine pollution shoot up the political agenda and into the public psyche.

At the UN environment summit in Nairobi this week, more than 200 countries signed a resolution supporting a series of actions to eliminate the discharge of plastic litter and microplastics into the ocean.

There is public pressure to act. More than nine in 10 (94 percent) European citizens would support an EU-level target to reduce plastic pollution of the oceans. In some countries it is as high as 98 percent. Least supportive are the Dutch (even there, the figure is 88 percent).

These figures come from a Eurobarometer survey in 2014. Awareness of the issue has increased since then.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation made waves around the world last year when it published a report claiming that by 2050 there will be more plastic, by weight, in the world's oceans than fish. According to the report, eight million tonnes finds its way into the oceans every year.

Few would disagree with the think tank that it is high time for a rethink. And that's why the world will be watching when the EU unveils its plastics strategy.

As the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) noted last month, the EU plastics strategy is an opportunity to coordinate action at EU level, set a level playing field, and define a "high level of ambition on tackling marine plastic waste".

The strategy "could also be viewed as an opportunity for the EU to set an example to the rest of the world on environmental standards", the IUCN added.

Food safety

Microplastics have also become a food safety concern.

"We have enough information to take a precautionary approach … and [implement] serious regulation," Sherri Mason, a professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia told EUobserver. "There is enough information that this is having an impact and has the potential to have a very serious impact."

A recent study have highlighted potential cellular issues for humans caused by nanomaterials and microplastics.

While countless other studies have shown the havoc caused by microplastics to marine life – from zooplankton snacking on beads to the BBC's Blue Planet II documentary – and are now receiving worldwide attention.

As Professor Mason points out, "You're not going to get anyone to eat plastics in the name of science."

But people are. Whether it's sea salt or beer, honey or shellfish, scientists have found microplastics when they've looked. Even in tap water.

An investigation by Orb Media published in September showed contamination in 72 percent of samples taken in European countries, including Germany, France and the UK. A 500ml glass of water contains 1.9 plastic fibres on average.

These figures, however, are lower than other countries, like the US where 94 percent of samples taken were contaminated, averaging 4.8 plastic fibres per 500ml of water.

It's not much, but is it enough to cause alarm?

In its statement in June 2016, EFSA experts said it's "too early to say but it seems unlikely" that microplastics are harmful to consumers. There were a few caveats however.

One potential concern was nanoparticles. Microplastics tend to be from 5mm to 0.05mm, whereas nanoplastics can be 1,000 times smaller than an algal cell.

Because nanoparticles are so much smaller, they can enter human cells and "may have consequences for human health". But more research and data are needed, the EFSA said.

The other worry is the substances carried by plastics as they float around in the water. Over time they attract persistent bio-accumulating toxins so anything that eats them by mistake gets a shot of this chemical cocktail. The effect this can have further up the food chain and to humans is unclear.

However, a review of the current evidence published in April noted: "The potential hazardous effects on humans by alternate ingestion of microparticles can cause alteration in chromosomes which lead to infertility, obesity and cancer."

Writing about the topic for the British Medical Journal in September, Stephanie Wright from King's College London concluded there is an "urgent need for bigger, better and more definitive studies. We need to establish toxic characteristics of microplastics, their behaviour in the body, and what constitutes a safe threshold for exposure when plastics are ether ingested or inhaled."

Professor Tamara Galloway from the University of Exeter told EUobserver that "we don't yet know if this is at a level likely to cause harm, although most people would probably rather not be consuming plastics with their seafood".

The biggest challenge is developing methods able to detect the presence of diverse polymer fragments in food or in human tissues. "We are not even yet at the point of being able to do that, let alone defining control groups," professor Galloway added. Finding a group that hasn't been exposed could be tricky.

Cleaning up the mess

In April 2015, the UN's group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection produced the first global assessment of the sources, fate and effects of microplastics in the world's oceans. Any proposed clean-up scheme would be "ineffective as long as plastics and microplastics continue to enter the ocean", they concluded.

Plymouth University's Richard Thompson has likened the dilemma to coming home and finding you have left the bath taps on: Do you start cleaning up the mess or turn the taps off first? There are a number of "taps" to turn and some of them easier than others.

Up to 195,000 tonnes of pre-production pellets – the small lentil-sized building blocks the plastic industry uses to make everything from bottles to car dashboards – leak into the oceans every year. It's one of the easier taps to turn off, according to Fidra, an environmental charity based in Scotland that is working on the issue at national and EU-level.

"To stop this source, all key players along the supply chain need to act, not just the proportion that have done so to date," said Sarah Archer, senior projects manager.

If industry doesn't clean up its act, will member states regulate? That's the eight million tonne question.

Modern life is, in the words of the European Commission, "unthinkable without plastic". Take packaging: there are coffee cups for morning lattes, wrappers for sandwiches, packets and bottles for crisps and beverages.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has calculated that only 14 percent of the 78m tonnes of plastic packaging produced globally each year is recycled - 32 percent "leaks" into the environment. It's one of the harder taps to turn off.

In its review of national marine litter policies in EU member states, published last month, the IUCN found a "large number" of national targets, measures and policies in place, thanks in particular to the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

There are also national plans and policies emerging. The likes of Sweden, France and Ireland have committed to ban microbeads from cosmetics, for example, whilst deposit schemes on plastic bottles are present in Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and soon Scotland.

The UK has also just announced proposals to apply taxes to single-use items given the success it – and other member states – have had with similar charges on plastic bags.

Will the commission cherry pick all the most effective measures and seize the opportunity it has with the new plastics strategy? It's touch and go.

In October, at the Our Ocean conference in Malta, the commission deputy head Frans Timmermans said: "You can't take out microplastics with a tax. You need to make sure things are reused, and not put in the ocean."

Businesses have been lobbying against any new charges or extended producer responsibility schemes that would result in packaging manufacturers shouldering more responsibility for plastic pollution.

Speaking to journalists at the same event, EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella said: "Nothing disciplines companies more than consumer practices. We are on the verge of changing consumer habits. I sense a turning point, like that we saw 10 to 15 years ago on climate change."


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