To protect the environment, the EU bans microplastics that are intentionally added to products. While some companies are still adapting to comply with these regulations, some are already years ahead of the game, pioneering natural alternatives to microplastics.
What is Microplastics?
Microplastics are small fragments of synthetic polymers that enter the environment through the degradation of larger products or their intentional use in some applications. The EU predicts that the release of microplastics are around 75,000 to 300,000 tons each year.
Microplastics are present in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as in our food and drinking water. Their continual release leads to the permanent pollution of our ecosystems and food chains. Laboratory studies have shown that microplastics can cause a range of negative ecotoxicological and physical effects on living organisms.
What are the products in the ban?
In a move to stave off further damage, the European Commission has approved Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/2055 of 25 September 2023. EU bans microplastics to restrict the production and sale of organic synthetic polymers that are insoluble and resistant to degradation. The restriction applies to both substances, whether companies use them independently or intentionally add them to products that release microplastics. The definition of microplastics used to establish the restriction is very broad, covering microbeads (particles smaller than 5 mm) and fibre-like particles (particles under 15 mm in length and with a length to diameter ratio more than 3).
Some examples of common products being banned are:
- Cosmetic products that use microplastics for the purposes of exfoliation (microbeads) or to obtain specific textures, fragrances, or colours. The ban will come into force immediately for cosmetic products containing microbeads, while the transition period will be between 4 and 12 years for other cosmetics.
- Synthetic sports surfaces’ granular infill, the primary source of intentionally present microplastics. The ban will come into force after a period of 8 years to give pitch owners and managers time to switch to other alternatives and to allow for most existing pitches to reach their natural end-of-life.
- The ban also impacts detergents, fabric softeners, loose glitter, plant protection products, toys, etc. In some cases, such as glitter, the ban will be immediate, whereas a transitional period of several years is provided in other cases.
How are companies finding natural alternatives to microplastics?
Some cosmetics manufacturers are years ahead of the game when it comes to moving away from microbeads. Beiersdorf, a Hamburg-based consumer goods group, has been on the forefront of this movement since 2015, using alternatives such as particles or shredded apricot kernels for exfoliation purpose. Moreover, industry leaders like LUSH and The Body Shop have also paved the way by utilizing ingredients such as ground nuts, bamboo, sea salt, and sugar as eco-friendly substitutes for microbeads.
Extending beyond cosmetics, innovative solutions have emerged for other significant contributors to microplastic pollution — artificial turf pitches. For instance, the Lower Saxony club VfL Sittensen, has completed one of the most sustainable facilities in Germany, featuring an artificial grass made from plant-based polyethylene. Compared to other artificial turf pitches, this pitch only needs a fifth of the amount of granulate. In addition, a filter system for the rainwater run-off prevents the remaining microplastic and fibre residues from entering the environment.
But there are other, much bigger sources of microplastics, which is heavy hitters, like waste disposal, building materials, road wear and fibres released through textile washing. A toxic compound released by tire abrasion has even been linked to the deaths of coho salmon on the US West Coast. Addressing this issue head-on, a UK startup, The Tyre Collective, has found a possible solution. Their patented suction device, which generates electrostatics and airflow to attract tire particles, can fit directly behind the tires on the underbody of a car. This innovation has offered a promising remedy to a significant source of microplastic pollution.