Effects of Microplastics on the Environment

Discussing the effects of microplastics on our environment it is important to understand that microplastic particles from rinse-off and leave-on cosmetics usually end up in sewage, microplastics manage to escape from the wastewater treatment systems due to their small size. The separation of microplastics from other particles is difficult and limited. Mainly in underdeveloped and developing countries, according to (European Chemicals Agency, 2019) more than around 87% of the microplastics end up in biologically active sludge and aquatic environments (European Chemicals Agency, 2019), (Yurtsever, 2019b, 2019a), (Hidayaturrahman and Lee, 2019), (Li et al., 2020).

There are a lot of studies conducted which demonstrate the presence of microplastic particles literally everywhere: in the air we breathe, in bottled and tap water, in foodstuff like salt, in home dust and almost everywhere in the aquatic environment (surface, mildwater, benthos), in freshwater systems. Furthermore, it was detected that there are microplastic particles in all forms of marine species: from tiny organisms to predators.

According to (Haegerbaeumer et al., 2019) and (Xu et al., 2020), there is proven effect of microplastics on our environment and life processes like mortality, development, reproduction, behaviour, cellular response, lifespan, egestion, regeneration, air and food consumption, even on metabolism, gene expression, neurotoxicity and carcinogenicity of aquatic species.

Did you know that resembling the movement and the size of food, microplastics can be consumed by mistakes by zooplankton and small fish. Microplastics can be absorbed by phytoplankton and filter feeders; and by mistake by larger organisms ending up in the intestine. There are issues with photosynthesis function in phytoplankton species. Thus, microplastics are putting the life of microorganisms at a high risk which leads to the problems of the trophic chain.

Indirect effects of microplastics should be also mentioned here, as they may contain additional harmful additives like phthalates, pigments or heavy metals, plasticizers, alkylphenols for functionality and conservation purposes. However, afterwards, these additives are released to the environment. Also, there are studies on the interaction of microplastics with inorganic pollutants (Xu et al., 2020). These pollutants and harmful additives may be released into the organisms, it happens more easily with small plastic nanoparticles. Nevertheless, detailed research on toxicity, and effects of plastic nanoparticles on the environment and organisms is needed in order to make specific conclusions.

Moreover, in terms of humans themselves, further studies are needed in order to ensure toxicity of microplastics on the human organism. However, recent findings have shown the presence of microplastics in the human faces (Yan et al., 2020; Zhang et al., 2020). We inhale, swallow and consume microplastics in the direct way through air, water, and seafood. 

There are significant gaps in analysis and scientific knowledge on the effects of micro- and nanoplastics on human organisms. A lot of researchers are worried about possible harmful effects of nanoplastics, as they are more likely to be absorbed and distributed in our organisms.


Actions against plastic microbeads

Having identified possible effects of microplastics on the environment, it can be said that microplastics may pose a greater risk than macroplastics. Therefore, the policies on exclusion of intentionally added microplastics from products (e.g. microbeads from cosmetic products) started by particular countries. In 2012, there started a global pressure against microbeads in cosmetics by NGOs, scientific findings, and intergovernmental organizations. The topic was thoroughly analyzed by environmental consultants and scientific institutes indicating that microbeads are an unnecessary source of plastic pollution. 

Thus, in 2014 the state of Illinois was the first to ban non-biodegradable microbeads from personal care products, then 15 States followed this ban. Therefore, “Microbeads Free – Water Act” was introduced by the U.S. prohibiting manufacture (from July 2017) and sales (from July 2018) of intentionally added non-biodegradable plastic microbeads in rinse-off personal care products. Other countries also took actions, for instance, Canada followed the ban prohibiting the manufacture, import, or sale of toiletries containing microbeads.

In October 2019, China also introduced a ban to stop the production of household chemical products which contain plastic microbeads as of the 31th of December 2020, the full-scale ban will be implemented in December 2022.

Non-European countries like New Zealand, South Korea and the Taiwan province have already banned microbeads usage in rinse-off cosmetics. Iceland joined the ban and signed a commitment. India is considering future restrictions. In Brazil the law was introduced in 2016 and approved in 2019, but has not been accepted as a public law yet. 

In 2015 two out of six states of Australia signed an agreement to phase out microbeads. 

South Africa’s government is currently in discussion and consultation with the cosmetic industry for a microbeads’ phase-out in cosmetic products.

Regarding the European Union, in 2013 Denmark was the first country to propose a European-wide ban on microbeads. A new directive 2014/893/EU published by the European Commission in 2014 prohibited rinse-off cosmetics that contain plastic microbeads to have the Ecolable sign. Therefore, the Netherlands, Austria,  Luxemburg,  Belgium, and Sweden joined the European ban on microbeads in personal care products. However. The European ban was not the straightforward policy, as it is in the USA and Canada due to the different EU’s structure.

Nordic countries were the pioneers of promoting the microplastics ban in cosmetics. In 2017, a full ban of microplastics in cosmetics was proposed by the Nordic council. In 2018, Sweden added solid plastic particles in cosmetics in the list of prohibited particles. Finnish government had to exclude microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics by June 2020. Norway being a niot full EU member, has prohibited personal care products containing microplastics to bare the Swan label (eco-friendly Nordic product), and the country is considering a full ban. Belgium signed a phase-out agreement with cosmetic industries which had to be implemented by the end of 2019.

France aims to ensure water quality justifying the prohibition of microbeads by using the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive. In 2018, the national law banning microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics was introduced in France. Starting as of 2020, Italy joined the same restriction of microbeads usage in exfoliating and cleansing rinse-off cosmetics.

The UK has preferred to join a European-wide ban introducing the ban into the national legislation, UK’s prohibition is one of the strongest and most comprehensive.

However, the microbeads (from 1 nm to 5 mm) phase-out in exfoliating and cleansing rinse-off cosmetics does not seem to be enough and does not lead to a risk reduction. The European Chemical Agency proposed a restriction of all microplastics (other than microbeads) that are added to rinse-off cosmetics to be initiated 4 years after the ban becomes effective and for leave-on cosmetics 6 years respectively. 

Taking everything into consideration, alternative solutions should be developed. BIOWEG is aiming to fully replace plastic microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products offering biodegradable, 100% bio-based microbeads to cosmetic industries.

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