• The Sustainability Taxonomy has the potential to be a game changer for ESG investing, as it will determine what qualifies as “sustainable”.
  • Including paint microplastics as one of the taxonomy's “Do No Significant Harm” criteria is a unique opportunity to tackle emissions at source.
  • Paint microplastic emissions that enter the ocean every year could be equivalent to between 150 billion and 225 billion empty plastic bottles.

The European Green Deal, promoted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, aims to make the EU's economy sustainable by turning climate and environmental challenges into opportunities, and making the transition just and inclusive for all.

One of the pillars of the European Green Deal is a “zero pollution ambition for a toxic-free environment”. The Commission plans to produce a Zero Pollution Action Plan for air, water and soil in 2021. For marine pollution, the EU aims to better monitor, report, prevent and remedy.

A key element of the European Green Deal is the EU Sustainability Taxonomy. It will determine the companies, projects and financing that qualify as “sustainable”.

The Sustainability Taxonomy has the potential to be a game changer in the area of ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing, because it requires companies to not only substantiate the positive impact that they are having across a range of environmental issues, but also confirm that they “Do No Significant Harm” (DNSH) on the other issues.

So, for example, wind energy companies might produce clean energy, but this cannot be at the cost of releasing paint microplastics into the oceans during surface maintenance of the offshore wind farms. The same applies to onshore farms, even if the pace of corrosion is slower. Ultimately, unless “clean” blasting methods are used, paint microplastic emissions will end up being dumped into the environment. Using the Sustainability Taxonomy can help prevent that.

The European Green Deal
Image: European Commission presentation

Are paint microplastics really a significant problem?

Yes, if recent research is anything to go by. Paint microplastic emissions that enter the ocean every year could be as high as 1.5 million to 2.25 million tonnes, which is equivalent to between 150 billion and 225 billion empty plastic bottles.

Research published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, titled “Paint fragments as polluting microplastics: A brief review”, reports that paint particles make up anything from 12% to 55% of microplastics found in samples. It cites studies showing that:

  • Surface waters off South Korea “contained 12 times more paint particles than other plastics”.
  • “(P)aint fragments were 30 times more abundant than other plastic particles… around the Antarctic peninsula”.
  • “(M)ost of the microplastic particles collected in their 40 Southern Ocean samples (118 of 203) were paint fragments”.

There are three types of paint microplastic emissions:

  • “Passive” emissions arising from wear and tear, effects of weather and corrosion. If the assets are only maintained on a periodic basis (“campaign maintenance”), the asset owner generally allows the asset to corrode by 30% to 50%, with the consequent microplastic emissions entering the environment.
  • “Active” emissions during surface maintenance, which generally give rise to significant microplastic emissions. This is because harmful open sandblasting and water jetting are the predominant methods of surface maintenance. These are used at an industrial scale worldwide with various, but very limited, degrees of waste collection and recycling.
  • “End of Life” emissions. The level of microplastic emissions into the environment is a function of the disposal method. We have all seem the images of ships being “dumped” and dismantled on beaches in Asia.
Major sources of paint microplastics
Image: Marine Pollution Bulletin

The European Commission will be completing the Sustainable and Protection of Water and Marine Resources aspect of the EU Sustainability Taxonomy in 2021. Inclusion of paint microplastics under the “Do No Significant Harm” criterion is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle microplastic emissions at source and stop them.

This measure will force companies to take the following steps to stop paint microplastic emissions:

  • “Active” paint emissions can be eliminated totally by use of circular vacuum blasting technology, which is proven and already available in the European marketplace. Besides being environmentally superior to traditional methods of surface maintenance, this technology is also safer to use, has 60%-plus lower CO2 emissions and is more cost effective in many situations.
  • “Passive” paint emissions from corrosion can be practically eliminated by moving from periodic, campaign or “corrective” maintenance practices (where the surfaces of steel assets or buildings are allowed to corrode by more than 30%-plus, with consequent paint microplastic emissions into the environment, before treatment) to continuous “preventative” maintenance, where spot blasting is used to treat corrosion when it starts, thus stopping the “passive” paint microplastic emissions at source.

The predominant existing surface treatment methods (i.e. open grit blasting and water jetting) cannot, and do not recover all, or in most cases any, paint residuals due to cost, technical and practical reasons.

As pointed out above, the Sustainability Taxonomy will ensure that “Green” or “Blue” projects – e.g. onshore and offshore wind farms – “Do No Significant Harm” to the environment. Equally importantly, it will also serve as a signal to operations in “Brown” or “Olive” industries about what is sustainable and what is not, and this will drive a change in behaviour.

So, for example, oil companies with rigs in the North Sea will think twice before doing open grit blasting or water jetting that dump paint microplastics beside fish farming areas off the Norwegian coast. Large European shipping companies will not just “assume” the dry docks that they use in Asia for periodic maintenance on their ships collect the paint residuals from surface maintenance – they will ensure they do so. And municipalities will make sure that maintenance of bridges over which they have control is done with “clean” blasting methods (see video below).

The good news is that the paint microplastic emissions problem can be readily solved. And the time to act is now. By including paint microplastics as one of the criteria in the “Do No Significant Harm” of the EU Sustainability Taxonomy in 2021, then the process of stopping paint microplastic emissions entering the environment generally, and the oceans particularly, can start immediately.

This is an opportunity for the EU to achieve an immediate, substantial and positive impact on the European environment – and it can do it now.