16 Jan 2015 Press release Chemicals & waste

Dutch Rally Support for a Europe Wide Microplastic Ban

The Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium and Sweden recently issued a joint call to ban the microplastics used in personal care products, saying the measure will protect marine ecosystems - and seafood such as mussels - from contamination.

The joint statement that was forwarded to the European Union's 28 environment ministers stated that the elimination of microplastics in products, and in particular, in cosmetics and detergents, "is of utmost priority".

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that have been added to possibly thousands of personal care products sold around the world. These microbeads - hardly visible to the naked eye - flow straight from the bathroom drain into the sewer system.

Not biodegradable, once microplastics enter the marine environment, they are extremely hard to remove. Scientists have recently warned that microplastics might have a harmful effect on human health via contamination of the food chain. For instance, some evidence suggests that microplastics can absorb persistent organic pollutants and facilitate their transfer within marine food webs.

Although it is evident that alternatives to microplastics are available, hundreds of tonnes of microplastics are still being released onto the EU market each year.

The Netherlands is particularly concerned that seafood - including its national production of mussels - could suffer from microplastic pollution. "Zeeuwse mosselen", or mussels from the Dutch province of Zeeland, are a very popular and typical Dutch speciality seafood dish.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the Dutch aquaculture sector produces 50,000 to 60,000 tonnes of mussels per year - 60 to 70 per cent of which are exported to Belgium and France.

Fortunately, some cosmetic manufacturers have already pledged to stop using microplastic scrub beads in their products. In December 2012, Dutch multinational Unilever announced it will phase out the use of microplastics in its personal care products by 2015.

The United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a resolution on marine plastic debris and microplastics, and requested UNEP to present scientific assessments on microplastics for consideration by the next session of the Assembly.

UNEP, through the Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) is also supporting initiatives such as the "Beat the Microbead" - a phone application that allows consumers to quickly identify personal care products containing microbeads - in its efforts to reduce the influx of waste in the marine environment.

The GPML is a voluntary multi-stakeholder coordination mechanism hosted by UNEP/GPA (Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the marine Environment from Land-based Activities) in which all partners agree to work together to further reduce and better manage marine litter.