As the EU considers banning single-use plastics such as straws and plates, campaigners and academics warn of a potentially bigger and invisible threat that policymakers may be underestimating. 

The fragile state of our oceans has prompted calls to ban many single-use plastic items.

But looming beneath an ocean of straws and bottles are tiny, sometimes invisible plastic particles that researchers say may pose an even greater threat to the environment and people.

Microplastics are intentionally used in cosmetics, detergents, paints, soap and in several industrial processes. But they can also originate from the abrasion of plastic items and synthetic textiles during washing or the erosion of tyres when driving.

In developed countries, they are a bigger source of marine plastic pollution than the more visible litter. A recent study found them in more than 90% of the most popular bottled water brands, prompting the World Health Organisation (WHO) to announce a health review.

In the meantime, EU authorities have begun investigating the potential ban of microplastics that are intentionally added to certain products.

This week, META looks at the impact of microplastics and progress made to address their proliferation.

The risks: Are nasty chemicals being served at our tables?

So far, little is known about the impact of microplastics on people’s health. But researchers warn that due to their pervasive nature and resistance to degradation, they are a global environmental concern and a potential risk to people.

The main problem is that, due to their persistence and widespread accumulation in the environment, the human body is largely exposed to chemicals associated with plastics, said Tatiana Santos, a chemicals expert at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). She added:

Micro and nanoplastics, like many types of plastic, contain harmful chemical additives that can easily migrate into food and drinks. When ingested, they can harm fish and mollusks and as a result they can also very easily enter our food chain.”

Additives such as phthalates, brominated flame retardants and bisphenol A (BPA) are known for their endocrine disrupting properties, which can lead to chronic diseases and disrupt the reproductive system of marine species and humans alike.

The scientific community agrees that we are yet to see the full impact of this subtle kind of pollution.

But in less than 20 years from now, the concentration of microplastics in the environment is going to skyrocket and we may not be able to control it due to the wrong decisions that we are making today,” Camilla Catarci Carteny, a researcher at Antwerp University, told META.

Despite the little knowledge we have on the interaction of microplastics with the marine environment, scientists have already documented the effects of their chemical additives on people.

Phthalates, which are also used to soften plastic IV tubes and catheters, have been linked to several illnesses including asthma and autism in children who received treatment in hospital for a long period of time.

This is a good indication of what can happen when microplastics exposure will increase drastically as a result of growing production and littering, said Carteny.

The politics: restrictions and waste prevention needed

The European Commission vowed to take measures to restrict the intentional use of microplastics in products across the EU.

The proposal was inspired by Barack Obama’s ban on microbeads – a type of microplastic used in personal care products – in the US. Sweden and the UK have also recently announced a ban on microbeads, noting that natural alternatives already exist.

The Commission tasked the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) with gathering information from businesses and other stakeholders on all intentional uses of microplastics in products. The agency is currently assessing whether restrictions are needed, and a review of the evidence is expected to be published in the coming months.

But NGOs now fear the industry may take this as an opportunity to avoid restrictions on certain uses of microplastics in products. Elise Vitali, a policy officer at the EEB, said:

“The lack of research on the impact of these plastic particles is often used as an argument by the industry to dodge restrictions. But just because we can’t quantify their impact, it doesn’t mean they don’t pose a threat when they accumulate in the environment.”

The EU legislation on hazardous substances, known as REACH, states that actions to restrict toxic chemicals such as those contained in microplastics should be taken on a precautionary basis.

This precautionary principle requires policymakers to identify gaps in knowledge of a potential risk, and to manage that risk in the face of uncertainty.

“We have an opportunity to contain the growing concentration of microplastics in the ocean for the sake of our future generations. We must act now before it’s too late,” said Vitali.

Policy analysts and scientists are also equally concerned about microplastics that may leak into the environment as a result of, for example, plastic items or synthetic fibres breaking up into small fragments.

Vitali suggests that policymakers should address all possible sources of microplastics in a holistic manner, not just those that are intentionally used in products.

“Waste prevention must be paramount in our efforts. We need to avoid the unnecessary use of plastic, especially excessive packaging, and also improve waste collection and recycling,” she said.