Can Chemicals Management Solve the Challenge of Microplastics?

Plastic pollution image cropped

Plastic and microplastic pollution is a growing problem. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Possible solutions to the growing volume of microplastics pollution around the world were discussed at the Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF2018) last week in Helsinki, Finland. Experts from a variety of organizations considered what help chemicals management regulations might provide.

Plastics are an integral part of the global economy, and production volumes are forecast to double over the next 20 years. Microplastics originate both from fragmentation of ‘macroplastics’ and from direct manufacture of products such as microbeads.

The pollution of oceans and surface waters with microplastics is widespread. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that 8 million tonnes of plastics enter the ocean each year.

Jane Bremmer, with the National Toxics Network in Australia, pointed to a lack of regulations to help resolve the issue. Calling microplastics a “new toxic timebomb”, she said contaminants leached by plastics and plastics packaging are key problems. Her organization has laid out a plan of action that includes a local, national and global multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approach to solutions, including chemicals management and regulations through the use of global instruments such as SAICM and others. She called for chemical regulations to be used to “turn off the tap, mop up the mess and clean out the cupboard.”

Steve Russell, from the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics manufacturers, said his organization believes that waste management is a more important priority than chemicals management as a solution to this problem.

The EU Commission’s Valentina Bertato, policy officer sustainable chemicals with the REACH Sustainable Chemicals unit, pointed to single-use plastics as a major barrier to a circular economy. Plastics and microplastics are a policy priority for the commission, as they create an unacceptable risk, and while chemicals management is not the only solution, it is part of the solution. She added that the goal is to use plastics responsibly.

An industry organization called the CEFLEX Initiative was launched 18 months ago, a collaborative initiative of EU companies looking to make flexible packaging more compatible with a circular economy. Graham Houlder, CEFLEX’s managing director, said the organization now has 76 companies including producers, sorters, recyclers and one retailer. He said that plastic products need to be designed for a circular economy and is a challenge that should be solved by industry, not regulators.

So how could chemicals management be a part of the solution of microplastics pollution? Panelists identified three area where it could be part of the solution – during the product design phase to ensure recyclability, with regulations on biodegradable and oxo-degradable plastics, and with regulations governing the intentional release of microplastics.

Reported by Leslie Burt, Chemical Matters

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