Climate and Nature

This is why microplastics should keep us up at night and what we can do about them

Plastic pellets are primary microplastics, like paint, tyres and textiles, and are an important source of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Plastic pellets are primary microplastics, like paint, tyres and textiles, and are an important source of plastic pollution in the ocean. Image: Unsplash/Sören Funk

Nina Jensen
Member of Friends of Ocean Action and CEO, REV Ocean
Declan Mc Adams
UpLink Top Innovator and Chairman, Pinovo
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  • Macroplastic pollution has been catching global attention and mobilization but microplastics are still lagging in terms of regulatory and corporate action.
  • There needs to be more awareness around the impact paint and tyres have on microplastic pollution as they are the leading sources of environmental leakage.
  • May 2023 negotiations around the UN Plastics Treaty in Paris present an unmissable opportunity to set legally binding global measures to address microplastic pollution.

With every new piece of scientific research, the scale and impact of plastic pollution become ever more glaring. We are eating, drinking and breathing microplastics; they are raining down on us and are even found in breast milk and fed to our children.

The impact plastic pollution has had on planetary and human health is, therefore, abundantly clear. The year 2023, however, holds major opportunities for the global community to bring about positive changes for plastics and the ocean.

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The problem

Microplastics are entering human and planetary ecosystems through several sources:

  • Primary intentional microplastics. These are made for use in cosmetics, personal care products and more.
  • Primary unintentional microplastics. Such microplastics emerge due to wear and tear or may come from paint – identified as the biggest source of microplastic leakage worldwide in a 2022 report – followed by tyres, textiles and pellets.
  • Degraded macroplastics or secondary microplastics. They involve plastic products, packaging and single-use plastics that break down in the environment.

Research suggests the average person eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and breathes in a similar quantity. The true number, however, is likely to be much higher, as only a small number of foods and drinks have been analyzed for plastic contamination.

The consequences such microplastics have for human health have been exposed; for example, Taiwanese scientists found that consumption of microplastics had negatively impacted brain health and memory in mice.

Scientists have also established links between everyday exposure to chemical additives that leach from plastics and impaired reproduction, brain health, obesity, diabetes and some types of cancer. The effects are evident in babies, children and adults of all ages.

And the European Commission has concluded that the growing scientific evidence on the hazards of uncontrolled microplastic pollution, combined with its long-term persistence and irreversibility, suggests that reasonable and proportional measures should be taken to prevent the release of microplastics.

The proportion of paint's contribution to total microplastic leakage in oceans and waterways.
The proportion of paint's contribution to total microplastic leakage in oceans and waterways. Image: Environmental Action

The solution

Despite the exponential growth in initiatives and regulations to tackle plastic pollution, there is no sign that leakage rates are slowing. For the most part, industries responsible for plastic production and its subsequent pollution seem not to have engaged in solving the problem and, rather, seek to maintain the status quo. Therefore, solutions should take a regulatory shape to drive corporate action.

Regulatory action could enforce product labelling requirements to inform customers of the risks of mismanagement, solutions available and ultimately, "extended producer responsibility," which requires producers to report their plastic data.

In March 2022, the United Nations Environment Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution 5/14, “End plastic pollution: towards an international legally binding instrument.” This resolution was an important milestone and a major leap towards a plastic-free ocean.

The framework will be negotiated through a series of global meetings and is expected to be in place by the end of 2024. The preamble to the resolution highlights that “plastic pollution includes microplastics,” hence the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee will need to consider how to address macroplastic and microplastic pollution in the global agreement.

A recent Nordic Co-operation report highlights the opportunity for the UN Plastics Treaty to tackle this urgent problem and to address microplastics as a distinct category of plastic pollution, warranting specific control measures.

Microplastics are different to macroplastics in many important respects. These include:

  • Tracking and monitoring challenges.
  • Higher toxicity due to their chemical composition.
  • Potentially higher human, plant and animal risks.
  • Different regulatory solutions and control measures.

They are also a significant problem in their own right. For these reasons, microplastics should not be treated as secondary or subsidiary to macroplastic pollution.

In addition to the regulatory route, we need to look at ways to reduce demand for plastic products, make available alternatives that are accessible economically and at scale and provide adequate waste and recycling facilities.

We also need full supply chain accountability and resource circularity. And since production and consumption patterns are global, there is a need for cross-sectoral and cross-value chain collaboration.

Types of plastic pollution in oceans and waterways. microplastic pollution
Types of plastic pollution in oceans and waterways. Image: Environmental Action

Looking ahead

The year 2023 will hopefully see three positive developments in microplastics.

Firstly, the EU Commission will publish its report on microplastics and the regulatory measures it will implement to achieve the EU Green Deal objective of reducing microplastic emissions into the environment by 30% by 2030. Strong regulatory signalling should drive action by the paint, tyre and textile industries to engage on this issue. It will also provide a more solid basis for innovators and capital to develop new solutions to tackle the problems of secondary microplastics.

Secondly, the Pew Charitable Trusts will publish an update of their 2020 “Breaking the Plastic Wave” report. They have indicated that it will highlight paint as an important source of microplastic pollution along with solutions.

Recommendations from experts like Pew on microplastic emissions will drive policy changes and regulatory action.

Finally, and importantly, the second round of negotiations on the planned UN Plastics Treaty will occur in Paris, France, in May. The meeting presents an unmissable opportunity to set legally binding global measures to address microplastic pollution.

Plastic packaging and single-use plastics have gained a place on the agenda at the UN Plastics Treaty negotiations, partly because big retailers and consumer goods companies face customer pressure to act on plastic pollution.

The same consumer pressure is not felt by paint, tyre, plastic, chemical and textile producers, whose products cause a large part of microplastic pollution. Therefore, governments and regulators must bring those industries to the UN Plastics Treaty negotiating table to account for their products’ significant negative impact when they end up in the environment.

If we don’t deal with microplastics as part of the new global plastics treaty, we will have missed a critical opportunity to tackle this pervasive problem that jeopardizes the health of people and nature alike.

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