When they appeared in the 1950s, plastics were promising materials and symbols of modernity. They were practical and inexpensive and quickly became an important part of consumers' daily lives. Their appeal has continued to grow and plastics are now used in many everyday consumer products. Although they have many advantages, there is still no solution for end-of-life plastics. Too many of these plastics end up in the environment where they can cause significant damage.
The name "plastics" hides dozens of different plastics, each with its own specific properties. Plastics have many qualities (hygiene, lightness, impact resistance, ease of use, durability) which explain their success.
It is thanks to their characteristics that they are used in many products such as furniture, toys, food packaging, medical equipment, insulating materials and certain parts for the automotive industry.
Despite their advantages, the omnipresence of plastics is threatening the environment and our health. On the one hand, they are manufactured primarily based on fossil resources (oil and gas). The extraction of these raw materials and their transformation into plastic objects has consequences on climate change.
On the other hand, their designers have not been able to find a valid solution for plastics that have reached the end of their life. Nowadays, plastics mainly bring to mind the vast amounts of plastic waste found in the oceans, and on beaches and roadsides, where they can have harmful effects on terrestrial and aquatic life.
And yet, these materials are being used more and more. Global plastics production has grown exponentially from just over 2 million tons in 1950 to approximately 400 million tons in 2020. However, the impacts of plastics and microplastics on the environment require the authorities to find solutions <anchor to the solutions the authorities are implementing> and citizens to change their habits <anchor to What can I do> to give them a new future.
The environmental harm of plastics is explained by their fragmentation, with time and wear, to become microplastics, that are themselves a danger to the ecosystems.
Moreover, the fragmentation of plastic waste is not the only source of microplastics. Microplastics are also created by the deterioration of paint coatings and by the wear and tear of car tyres. In fact, tyre wear is the second largest source of microplastics after loose plastic waste. Tyres wear out while driving and release small rubber particles. This mainly happens during acceleration and braking.
Microplastics are also created by washing synthetic clothing. When we wash our synthetic clothes, fibres break down and microplastics enter the water.
Microplastics can also be intentionally produced and added to skin care products, for example as exfoliating beads or to adjust the viscosity (thickness), appearance or stability of a product. They are even used as glitter or in make-up and to encapsulate fragrances in laundry products. When these products are rinsed after use, the microplastics end up in the sewage system and then in the ocean or ground.
Plastic pellets and powders, which are used as raw materials for plastic products, are also considered microplastics. Their loss during transport and the loading and unloading of trucks is a major source of plastic pollution.
- Environmental and health impact
Every year, between 8 and 10 million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans, the equivalent of a rubbish truck full of plastic waste every minute. Plastics degrade habitats and threaten marine mammals, fish and seabirds. They regularly get entangled in plastic waste, get injured or die from suffocation.
Fine plastic particles are particularly harmful to small marine organisms such as small fish, lobsters and shrimps. These organisms ingest microplastics, which quickly make them feel full, threatening the growth and survival of these animals, which eat less, become weakened and sometimes die of malnutrition. Even the smallest organisms at the bottom of the food chain (such as plankton and algae) can ingest very small particles of plastic, which eventually impacts the entire ecosystem of our seas and oceans.
Microplastics also accumulate on land, polluting soils and ecosystems for decades, with repercussions throughout the food chain, right down to our plates.
Microplastics have been found in foods and drinks such as beer and honey. Plastics contain many chemicals, which can be harmful to human and animal health. Indeed, some have endocrine-disrupting effects. Microplastics have also already been discovered in our lungs, blood and faeces, and even in placentas and breast milk. Their impact still needs to be studied in depth. This is why responses to the problem of plastics and microplastics must integrate the health and environmental dimensions.
In addition, most plastics are currently manufactured from materials of fossil origin and therefore contribute to climate disruption. In 2019, they were responsible for more than 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- What measures are the European authorities implementing?
Specifically, the goal is that by 2030, all plastic packaging on the EU market should be reusable or recyclable and the use of single-use plastics should be reduced. In addition, the strategy envisages combating marine litter generated at sea (such as discarded fishing gear), restricting the intentional addition of microplastics to products, reducing the unintentional release of microplastics from products etc.
Europe has implemented the following initiatives within the framework of this strategy.
A European directive to reduce the use of single-use plastics
The European Single-Use Plastics Directive implements some of the actions set out in the strategy, targeting the recyclability of plastic packaging and the reduction of the use of single-use plastics. The directive also includes measures to increase producer responsibility and separate the collection of plastics for more efficient recycling.
In Belgium, a Royal Decree, bans several single-use plastic products such as plates, cutlery and straws.
Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels-Capital Region are involved in the implementation of the directive.
Reducing the intentional use of microplastics
The deliberate use of microplastics in products must be reduced. The European Commission and Member States jointly decided to phase out the use of microplastics in certain products in 2023. This ban was added to chemicals legislation (REACH).
Microplastics are now banned in applications where they are intentionally used or added to compounds, such as glitter, certain toys and certain paints. Microplastics used for abrasive properties (scrub beads) in soaps, scrubs, rinse-off cosmetics, detergents and cleaning products are now also banned. However, existing stocks may still be sold.
Deferral on this prohibition is provided for certain uses. For instance, microplastics other than scrub beads will be banned in rinse-off cosmetic products from 2027. These include microplastics added for texture, smell or colour.
In certain cosmetics such as mascara, make-up or nail products, microplastics are still permitted until 2035, unless they are scrub beads. For cosmetics, however, it will be mandatory from 2031 to add a label indicating whether microplastics have been added to the product.
Microplastics that are water-soluble and biodegradable, or that are not released during use, remain permitted. Most of these applications do require companies to report that they use microplastics and in what quantities. This allows the European Commission to decide at a later stage to take further action for these applications as well.
For more information about this European restriction, see also this presentation (in English).
Reducing the unintentional discharge of microplastics
The European Commission is also looking for ways to reduce microplastic emissions created by unintentional wear and tear (such as microplastics resulting from the wear and tear of car tyres, the washing of synthetic fibre clothing, and the exposure of outdoor painted surfaces to the weather).
The international fight against marine litter
Various European countries and the States bordering the North-East Atlantic have set out arrangements for international cooperation to protect the marine environment in this region. The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, known as the OSPAR Convention, aims to prevent and eliminate marine pollution resulting from human activities. The OSPAR Regional Action Plan (adopted under this Convention) also includes actions to combat marine litter.
At the global level, an internationally binding instrument to end plastic pollution is being developed within the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It is based on a comprehensive approach to the full life cycle of plastics, including their design, production and disposal. Our country is also taking action against marine litter.
- What measures are the Belgian authorities implementing?
The measures adopted in Belgium are based on the European Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUP).
Some of the provisions of this directive fall within the competence of either the federal government or the regional institutions, while others involve mixed competences.
The federal government is responsible for product policy. The new Royal Decree aims to ban the placing on the market of various single-use plastic products such as cotton buds and plastic tableware and to promote the use of reusable products.
Regional governments (Brussels, Flanders en Wallonia) regulate the use of certain products once they are on the market, such as the use of single-use catering equipment at festivals. The regions are also responsible for the extended producer responsibility policy.
Tool to reduce microplastic emissions
Our FPS also encourages other sectors to be cautious with the use of microplastics. For example, the FPS Public Health has developed a methodology for a self-test to help companies avoid the release of microplastics into the environment. This methodology has been transposed into a manual for companies. This manual is intended for manufacturers of plastic objects, the chemical and pharmaceutical industry and recycling and maintenance companies who use them for sandblasting, among other things.
Research on environmental and health impact of microplastics
In addition, the FPS Health has commissioned a policy information note on the impact of microplastics on human health. The results show that at the level of our cells, microplastics can cause inflammation, oxidative stress (breakdown of cells) and genotoxicity (damage to DNA).
A national action plan against marine litter
Our country has also developed a national action plan against marine litter, including both measures for the prevention of marine litter at source (from fishing and shipping, among others) and measures for the de-pollution of the sea. You can find more information in the marine litter section. Belgium also participates in the United Nations CleanSeas Campaign (UNEP).
Awareness campaign with cartoonist Kim Duchateau
Following new regulations, the FPS Public Health is launching an awareness campaign on microplastics in autumn 2023 in collaboration with cartoonist Kim Duchateau. How do microplastics end up in nature, what is the impact on our bodies, and above all, what can we ourselves do to avoid or limit the spread of microplastics in our environment? With beautiful drawings and a knowing wink, Kim Duchateau shows that microplastics can be found in mussels, beer or water, and consequently in our faeces and even in the placenta. With the campaign, the FPS Public Health aims to raise awareness of the microplastics problem among the public and inform citizens about the action they themselves can take to protect the environment.
- What can I do myself?
As shown in this image, you can easily adopt new habits to reduce your plastic consumption. For example, you can easily:
- Avoid plastic packing materials and use a reusable shopping bag, water bottle, lunch box, etc.
- Adopt an eco-friendly driving style. The more aggressive you drive, the more fuel you consume and the more plastic particles end up in nature.
- Do not wash synthetic clothes more often than necessary. Let your clothes blow dry in fresh air.
- Avoid synthetic clothing and opt for clothes made of natural materials such as linen, cotton or wool.
- Wash at a low temperature (30°). High temperatures damage some fabrics, releasing more microfibres.
- Avoid toothpaste, cosmetics and other personal care products that contain microplastics. Opt for personal care and cleaning products with the EU Ecolabel, as these are sure to contain no microplastics.