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Network of scientists: EU should take plastic pollution more seriously in chemical regulation

The synthetic polymers, the main constituents of plastics, have so far been exempted from registration under the European chemicals regulations REACH. But now the European Commission is working on a proposal for how and which polymers should be registered. In this connection, a group of scientists give their recommendations.

People and the environment are widely exposed to polymers which pollute our ecosystems and increase in production. Despite the fact that we in Europe produce and use extreme quantities of these substances, we still do not know enough about them and their consequences, especially because they have so far been exempted from registration under the EU’s chemicals legislation, REACH, experts say. However, it now seems that the polymers will also have to be registered under REACH in the future.

In the European Commission’s proposal for the registration of polymers under REACH, they attempt to lighten the burden for the industry by limiting the polymers subject to registration based on a number of criteria. However, according to The International Panel on Chemical Pollution (IPCP), a global network of scientists, the criteria set are not good enough.

In a statement, the IPCP points out that the European Commission’s proposal does not take the latest research and the uncertainties that still exist in this area into account. But they should, according to the scientists.

Legislation should ensure a high level of protection of people and the environment

Based on the preliminary criteria, only approx. 6% of estimated 200,000 polymers in the EU market will potentially require registration. In addition, the scientists comment that most of the polymers that are used in the highest quantities and greatly contribute to the plastic crisis as well as the micro- and nanoplastic pollution will not require any registration process.

The European Commission should ensure a higher level of protection of both human health and the environment. In order to do so, the IPCP believes that the European Commission should have a structure for registering all polymers in a stepwise process that prioritises the types of polymers manufactured in the highest volumes, as these are, likely, also the ones which humans and the environment are exposed mostly to.

Legislation should take more aspects into consideration

In addition, the scientists also criticize that the potential new legislation only concerns the polymers themselves and not their derived effects.

The scientists point out that the materials cannot be considered ‘pure’, as plastic polymers typically contain so-called ‘non-intentionally added substances’. These substances are often unknown and can include various impurities and contaminants, which may be toxic.

Furthermore, in the legislative proposal, the European Commission has defined so-called Polymers of Low Concern (PLC), which can be exempted from registration. But here the scientists call attention to the fact that the current PLC concept does not cover the problems that can occur during production and disposal. And this is problematic, as some substances can technically meet the criteria for being a PLC and thus avoid registration, but where these can still be harmful to humans and the environment due to the emission that occurs during the life cycle of the polymers.

In addition, the scientists also believe that the legislation should take the contribution of polymers to the pollution with micro- and nanoplastics into consideration. The small pieces of plastic can, among other things, be generated by textiles, and these can be spread via the air to remote areas and thus contaminate these areas. In addition, microplastics can also end up in food chains, as animals can ingest them by mistake.

At Plastic Change, we believe that legislation should ensure the highest possible protection of people and the environment. Therefore, we are also working at EU level for stricter regulation of synthetic polymers under REACH.