While there is no formal definition of micro-plastics, it is generally accepted that they are plastic particles that are less than 5 mm in size. Micro-plastics are a significant environmental problem, harming our marine environment and posing a risk to human health. Once in the environment, they are difficult to remove and can take hundreds of years to break down. Preventing micro-plastics entering the environment is therefore a key issue for us.
There are two types of micro-plastics – primary and secondary.
Primary micro-plastics can be intentionally added to products such as toothpaste, exfoliating creams or industrial cleaning products, used to shot-blast ship hulls, or the result of wear and tear on items containing plastics, such as tyres, roads and synthetic fibres.
Primary micro-plastics can also be unintentionally released into the environment. This happens when industrial plastic resins and powders are accidentally spilled during production, transport, sea shipment, conversion or recycling.
Secondary micro-plastics result from larger pieces of plastic (for example, plastic packaging) leaking into the ocean. Over time, sunlight and wind cause these objects to break down into micro-plastics. Secondary micro-plastics can be found in table salt, bottled drinking water and other substances.
In 2017, the European Commission identified micro-plastics as an emerging issue in its Strategy on Plastics. It therefore asked the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to prepare proposals for a restriction on intentionally added micro-plastics in both consumer and professional products. In January 2019, ECHA submitted its proposal for three types of measures: market restriction, labelling and reporting. This reflected ECHA’s conclusion that the risks arising from intentionally added micro-plastics are currently insufficiently understood and controlled. The restriction may go beyond intentionally added micro-plastics and include pellets, powder, flakes and forms where the related risks are still unknown.
The EU is running a public consultation on the proposal, which will clarify the rationale for the size definition of micro-plastics and the justification for a threshold of 0.01% concentration of microplastics in products such as cosmetics and detergents. Current discussions around the consultation also suggest that ECHA intends to enable the transition to biodegradable polymers. However, at present such materials could only replace a small fraction of global plastics applications, due to their performance limitations. Biodegradability is also not desirable for high-quality, durable applications such as pipes, cable insulations and automotive components.
Increasing volumes of micro-plastics are ending up in the environment due to the worldwide increase in plastic production and use. Once they are in the environment, removing micro-plastics is practically impossible. Only proper recovery and recycling of plastics at the end of their lifetime can effectively prevent the spread of micro-plastics.
The potential for micro-plastics to harm marine life and human health is a major concern. Swallowing plastics and micro-plastics can block sea animals’ digestive tracts, leading to starvation.
There are major gaps in our knowledge about the impact of micro-plastics, including their source, their pathway into the environment, where they end up, how long they last and the related risks.
The potential effect of micro-plastics on human beings is still a matter of scientific debate and much more sound scientific research is needed. We therefore welcome the World Health Organisation’s ongoing work to scientifically review the potential risks of micro-plastics. We are also engaged in a working group, along with PlasticsEurope, to review the current scientific literature on micro-plastics and identify the knowledge gaps. In addition, we support voluntary industry efforts to phase out intentionally added micro-plastics.
We are fully committed to ensuring that no plastic pellets escape from our operations or supply chain, and we invest substantially in the best-available technology to prevent pellet spills.
Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) is an international programme to help prevent resin loss from getting into the marine environment. We were one of the first signatories of PlasticsEurope’s OCS pledge and we have also signed the Austrian Chamber of Commerce’s Zero Pellet Loss pledge initiative. Together with Total, we pioneered and developed the world’s first OCS audit scheme and have run audits in all our production locations, resulting in clear actions and targets. Along with many other value chain members, we are currently driving the development of a third-party OCS certification scheme, to boost the impact and credibility of OCS. A harmonized certification will ensure equal standards for anyone handling pellets, from primary producers like us to logistics providers and converters, thus further reducing marine litter.
Our other actions include ongoing analysis, awareness campaigns and training with our employees and contractors, to reinforce our work practices and behaviours. We are putting in place effective pellet retention measures, such as sieves and pellet separators, as well as skimmer ponds and filtration units, based on the best available technology. In addition, we continuously invest in research and development and in our processes and separation technology for both pellets and powder, and work with government bodies and universities to increase our knowledge and further improve our separation systems.
We also engage with the value chain, including customers, distributors, external warehouses and logistic providers, and will begin to engage with compounders and silo and container cleaners. We welcome regulatory initiatives that would reinforce the OCS programme as the most efficient and effective means to prevent pellet loss and encourage all players along the value chain to sign up to this programme.
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