Here's why paint microplastic emissions must be at the top of the global environmental agenda

plastic waste in the ocean amid rising concerns about paint microplastic emissions

Paint microplastics account for 58% of estimated total annual ocean microplastic leakage. Image: Naja Bertolt Jensen/Unsplash

Declan Mc Adams
UpLink Top Innovator and Chairman, Pinovo
Torleiv Njaa
Head of Design, Pinovo
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  • Paint is a major source of microplastics in the ocean, although the scale of the issue has only recently been highlighted.
  • Paint microplastic emissions account for 58% of estimated total annual ocean microplastic leakage.
  • Authorities, regulators and members of the public can take a series of simple measures to reduce paint microplastics leaking into the ocean.

Plastic waste in the ocean is a well-recognized problem, but there is another one that is more difficult to visualize – that of microplastics in the water. And one of the major sources of microplastics is paint, although that's only recently been more widely acknowledged.

Eighteen months ago, we, the team at Pinovo in Bergen, Norway, were a bit frustrated. We had a patented, proven solution to a big environmental problem that the world could not see. How can you have an impact on something people don’t recognize?

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We knew from our industrial experience that paint is an important source of microplastics in the ocean. It could also be seen in water sampling by scientists around the world. But many believed that the total size of the problem was lot smaller than our own calculations showed.

In addition, as regulators and industry did not realise the size of the problem, they were unlikely to promote or adopt solutions that would solve it, such as the use of our dust-free vacuum blasting technology for maintenance of painted steel assets. Fortunately, this is now changing.

Paint microplastic emissions a huge problem

With encouragement from UpLink – World Economic Forum’s innovation platform, we decided to commission science based and data driven research on this topic. We asked the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for advice, as they had previously identified tyres as an important source of microplastics.

The IUCN introduced us to EA – Environmental Action to perform this research, since they had previous experience on similar studies and had worked with IUCN on a number of occasions.

In Spring 2021, Paola Peruta and Julien Boucher at EA began their work. They started with the annual total world paint sales and then calculating the fate of the paint during its lifecycle – from application through to end of life – using measures and methods such as plastic footprint, mass conservation and Monte Carlo simulations. The result was the Plastic Paints the Environment report, published in February.

Paint 'top source of ocean microplastic leakage'

The key finding of the report was that paint is the biggest source of ocean microplastic leakage, accounting for an estimated 1.9 million tonnes per annum. This represents 58% of estimated total annual ocean microplastic leakage – more than tyres, textiles and pellets combined.

Following its publication, the EU Commission decided to investigate if paint should be included with the other major sources of unintentional release of microplastics, including tyre abrasion, pre-production plastic pellets, and synthetic textiles.

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The resulting consultation process aims to come up with a cost-effective policy that can reduce the unintentional release of microplastics into the environment. This, in turn, will contribute to the EU Commission’s recently announced objective of reducing microplastic emissions by 30% by 2030.

In addition, at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) in Nairobi at the end of February, the resolution approved to start negotiations on a binding UN Plastic Treaty officially recognized that paint pollution includes microplastics, for the first time.

More research needed on paint microplastics

Paint microplastic emissions may finally be “on the agenda”, but more research is needed to better understand the problem.

We need more water and soil sampling around the world to identify microplastic pollution “hot spots”, greater understanding about the health effects of paint microplastics on human and animals, and more “top-down” studies to get even better data to help tackle the issue.

Regulators also need to put this problem on their priority lists and start to introduce measures such as a requirement for industrial and marine users of paint to collect paint residuals after surface maintenance.

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They should also encourage a move to continuous maintenance of painted steel assets to reduce passive paint microplastic emissions, and include paint microplastic emissions in their risk assessments for new offshore wind farm developments, among other measures.

Meanwhile, the paint industry needs to educate its customers on the risks of “mismanaged paint”. This includes a move to continuous maintenance, and use of sustainable surface treatment solutions so that they can maintain their painted assets in such a way that they reduce paint microplastic emissions.

Paint users should switch to clean sustainable surface maintenance methods such as Pinovo’s, and stop using the traditional “dirty” methods of open grit blasting and high-pressure water jetting, which release paint microplastic emissions if all of the paint residuals and grit are not collected.

How to reduce paint microplastic emissions

Members of the public can also take some practical measures to reduce paint microplastic emissions. When using domestic paint for decorating, avoid washing paint brushes in the sink as paint, and any microplastics it contains, don’t disappear when put down the drain.

Boat owners should make sure they collect waste from maintaining the hull, and ensure that marinas have the necessary facilities to achieve this.

Painted assets need to be kept in good shape, and not allowed to rust before repainting. Rust and paint residuals end up in the environment, and most often in the ocean, as microplastics.

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The public can also put pressure on authorities to do more. When passing over a bridge that is being repainted, consider whether it is being done using clean sustainable methods such as vacuum blasting, or the old traditional blasting or mechanical methods, where the old paint ends up in the ocean. People can ask their local municipality what they are doing to ensure more environmentally-friendly methods are used.

Finally, they can use contacts with local regulators and environmental NGOs such as WWF to put this issue firmly “on the agenda" and participate in the EU Commission’s public consultation on the issue.

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