Redefining the problem of plastic pollution

The whole world faces different environmental challenges. Among them are microplastics, which have gained a lot of media attention also in Finland. The author of this article participated at the beginning of this year in a Workshop ’Science Based Rules on Plastic: Regulating Plastic Pollution’ at Lorentz Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. The workshop focused on identifying the problems microplastics can cause and the legal means to tackle them. During the week, there was especially one question that took our interest: are microplastics really a bigger problem for the environment or human health?

The workshop gathered together scientists and lawyers from different countries across Europe to discuss the regulation of single-use plastics and microplastics. During the week, we tried to find a common understanding on whether microplastics are dangerous for human health and / or for the environment, and whether and how they should be regulated from the legal perspective. We also discussed the extended producer responsibility and the impact consumers may have by their consuming behavior.
Very soon we noticed that many consumers have labelled microplastics dangerous even though there is hardly any scientific evidence backing that conclusion. During the workshop it became apparent that from the scientific perspective microplastics have not yet proven to have severe effects on a short-term but may have effects in a long-term. Thus, the effects of microplastics for the environment and human health are yet to be researched.
On the basis of the aforementioned it can be concluded that there is already a public reaction against microplastics despite the lack of conclusive scientific evidence on the effects. This raises the question of what should be regulated and to what extent, in case of uncertainty. Next, this article will look at what measures the European Union has already taken as regards to microplastics.

The Current Action of the European Union Against Microplastics

The lack of scientific evidence on the short-term effects of microplastics does not mean that we should not take precautionary action. Under the precautionary principle, it is possible to take legal action in case there is already a possible danger to human, animal, or plant health, or to protect the environment. The purpose is to prevent harm before a hazard has come into reality.
The public concern has also made the EU to try to find a way to restrict at least the intentionally added microplastics. Intentionally added microplastics are microplastics that the manufacturers add, for example, to cosmetic products. Microplastic particles are used in consumer products as an abrasive or to, for example, control the stability of a product. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), located in Helsinki, submitted one year ago a restriction proposal for microplastics that are intentionally added to mixtures used by consumers or professionals. The proposed restriction is estimated to cut down emissions by at least 85 per cent.  
According to ECHA, ECHA’s Committees for Risk Assessment (RAC) and Socio-economic analysis (SEAC) are expected to adopt their consolidated opinion on the proposed restriction in June 2020. The standard period of time reserved for the committees’ opinion formation is 12 months. However, this time period has been extended to 15 months due to the high number of comments received through the public consultation and the complexity of the issues to be evaluated. Thus, we still need to wait for some months before the consolidated opinion will be delivered. The European Commission will make the final decision on the restriction of microplastics taking ECHA’s opinion into consideration.

Conclusions for the Future

A question was raised at the beginning of this article whether it pays off to focus on the regulation of microplastics? Or do microplastics just take our attention away from more important environmental issues? There is probably no straightforward answer to this. However, the author of this article is of the opinion that it is not waste of time to take legal action against microplastics. Especially the use of intentionally added microplastics is relatively easy to regulate. Microplastics used in different kinds of products can be replated with other, more environmentally sustainable alternatives. Microplastics are used in a wide range of products including plant protection products, leave-on and rinse-off cosmetic products, cleaning products, paints, products used in the gas and oil industry and so on. This means that about 50 000 tonnes of microplastics are estimated to be used in the EU/EEAA yearly.
Since the possible regulation of microplastics requires the different economic actors adapt their behavior accordingly, it is probably better to take baby steps as regards to the restriction of microplastics than one big leap, due to the lack of conclusive scientific evidence on the effects of microplastics. At the end of the workshop, the participants discovered that one week is too short a period of time to try to find out the best way to regulate microplastics. Thus, our work will continue after the workshop with the aim of formulating a set of principles that could function as guidelines for legislators and policy makers. While waiting for legal action on microplastics at the EU or global level, each of us can affect the manufacturers by our own consumption behavior.
TEKSTI Heidi Kaarto
KUVA Hans Braxmeier, Pixabay

The author has a LLM degree in European Law from Leiden University and is specialised in the internal market of the EU. At the moment, she works as a lawyer in a private law firm.