From the depths of ocean trenches to the peaks of the highest mountains, from our food and water to human blood and stool, there are few places microplastics have not been found. Indeed, the United Nations estimates there is more of it in our seas than there are stars in our galaxy.
Spread through the air, water and soil, once microplastic is in the environment, it doesn't biodegrade and can't be removed, meaning it stays there for centuries, posing a threat to wildlife and ultimately making its way into the food chain and the human body.
Microplastics are used as abrasive particles in toothpaste or exfoliants, or as binders that change the consistency of liquids. Currently an estimated 42,000 tons of these tiny pieces of plastic, intentionally added to products, are released in the EU annually. Yet their effect on human health remains unknown.
"That's why it is so important to stop the stream of release into the environment," said Johanna Bernsel, spokesperson for the European Commission.
To tackle the issue, the EU's executive arm has adopted measures under European REACH legislation on harmful chemicals, banning the sale within the bloc of both microplastics themselves and products to which they have been intentionally added.
Which products will be affected by the ban?
The new ban, which covers all synthetic polymer particles less than five millimeters that are organic, insoluble and resist degradation, will impact a vast array of products including cosmetics, detergents, glitter, fertilizers, plant protection items, toys, medicines, medical devices and artificial sport surfaces.
Not affected are construction materials that contain microplastics but do not release them and products used at industrial sites. However, manufacturers will have to report their estimated microplastic emissions annually and will have to provide instructions on how to use and dispose of products to prevent microplastics escaping into the environment.
The ban not only applies to products manufactured in the European Union but also to those imported from abroad.
"So in that sense, it promotes the innovativeness of the European industry," Bernsel said.
When will the regulations come into effect?
For cosmetics containing microbeads — small plastic beads used for exfoliation — and loose glitter made of plastic, the ban will take effect in mid-October. But for other cosmetics, there will be a transition period of between four and 12 years, depending on the complexity of the product and availability of suitable alternatives.
For infill material used in sport pitches, there will be a grace period of eight years to give pitch owners time to switch to alternatives and allow most existing pitches to reach their end of life, at which point they would need to be replaced anyway.
How easy is it to find substitutes?
Marc Kreutzbruck, head of the Institute of Plastics Engineering at Germany's University of Stuttgart, said there's no substitute that can help us achieve our climate goals as effectively as plastic can.
"Unfortunately, that's the reality because plastics are a material that can be shaped at very low temperatures," he said. "Regardless of the material, whether metal, ceramic, glass or anything else, they all require significantly more energy to be made into products."
He said recycling and sustainability are the way forward.
"We need to achieve 100% recycling. Plastic is not disposable; it's a valuable material that needs to be collected and recycled. This mindset must be instilled in people," he said.
Another idea is to use biodegradable plastics which break down quickly when they enter the environment. But they currently only have a market share of around a fraction of a percent. What's more, Kreutzbruck added, they can't be used for all products, particularly complex ones like food packaging.
European Commission spokesperson Bernsel said it will require a concerted effort by policy makers, industry and the research community to come up with sustainable alternatives. She is optimistic the ban will provide the necessary incentives to do so.
"We believe the future of the chemicals industry is to emphasize sustainability and sustainable alternatives. So this is an opportunity for the European industry to be at the forefront of the development towards more sustainability and innovation. That's how we can keep our competitive edge," she said.
What impact will the ban have?
Under the Zero Pollution Action Plan, the EU has committed to a 30% reduction in microplastics waste by 2030. The ban is a first step toward that goal.
It is expected that the ban will prevent the release of about half a million tons of microplastics into the environment, but Kreutzbruck said more needs to be done.
"It's important to understand that compared to the overall volume of plastic in the environment, microplastics in cosmetics comprise less than 1%. So while it's good that these measures are being taken, it only scratches the surface," he said.
Further steps could see the EU tackle microplastics that are unintentionally released, for instance, from clothes when they are washed or car tires.
Bernsel hopes the new regulation might inspire other regions in the world to consider taking action.
"Of course, we cannot dictate measures for other countries or regions in the world. But setting an example on environmental matters has proven very successful in other areas in the past," she said.
Edited by: Tamsin Walker