Transfer of microplastics into tissues may lead to increased human exposure. Based on data from a study measuring microplastic uptake by mussels cultivated for human consumption, scientists estimate that European shellfish consumers are eating up to 11,000 plastic particles per year.
How much is there?
Microplastic marine litter comes from a great variety of different sources, some of them still unknown and others very hard to quantify. A source whose emissions actually can be quantified is the use of cosmetics and personal care products containing microplastics. Around 130 tons of polyethylene particles from personal care products are flushed down the household drains in the Baltic Sea catchment area each year, according to Baltic Eye estimates based on market data (Euromonitor 2015).
A recent Swedish study showed that 10-30% of the microplastic particles in household sewage water pass through sewage treatment plants and are released into the sea. Thus, up to around 40 tons of microplastic particles from personal care products enter the Baltic Sea - each year.
What can we do?
Two key measures for tackling the challenge of microplastics are sustainable product design and prevention at the source. Unfortunately, many of the known sources are very hard to stop. However, the use of microplastics in personal care products is a source of emission that actually can be eliminated.
Several multinational companies have already initiated phase-outs of microplastics from their personal care products, replacing the plastics with alternatives like silica. In some countries around the Baltic, these initiatives have led to a decreased use of microplastics in personal care products. The decrease is unfortunately more than counterbalanced by an increased use in other countries where phase-outs have not started. According to the Euromonitor forecast for 2014 to 2018, the net amounts of microplastic emissions from personal care products to the Baltic Sea are likely to increase in the coming years.
To significantly reduce these emissions, phase-outs must be implemented further, more rapidly and to the same extent in all Baltic Sea countries.
Stronger legislation or industry taking responsibility?
Putting an end to microplastic emissions from personal care products is not a question of either legislative measures or trade and industry initiatives. It is a question of bringing legislative measures and industry measures together to speed up the process. Because legislative measures could take years to implement, Baltic Eye suggests an immediate dialogue between politicians and industry to end microplastic emissions from all personal care products.
Voluntary initiatives have already demonstrated that it is perfectly do-able to replace plastic particles in personal care products with environmentally friendly alternatives. Such initiatives should, therefore, be endorsed on both national and EU levels and implemented in all member states.
The Helcom Regional Action Plan (RAP) on marine litter identifies microplastics as one of the top priorities. It stresses the importance of establishing an overview of the different sources of microplastics and engage with manufacturers and retailers. For microplastics in personal care products Helcom suggests that ”the impact on the marine environment should be reduced by applying substitutes.” In several US states, the use of microplastics in personal care products has already been banned. In December 2014 the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Luxemburg and Sweden issued a joint call for a similar EU-wide ban.
This proposal should be seriously considered and supported by all EU countries, to demonstrate the political will to act according to the EU precautionary principle and to reach the targets expressed in the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) through Descriptor 10 dealing with marine litter.