No EU ban yet: Hundreds of tonnes of microplastic in wastewater

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Foam where none should be: microplastics can be a problem for water bodies. (Photo: picture alliance / dpa)

Friday, October 12, 2018

In scrubs and toothpaste you can hardly find microplastics today – thanks to the commitment of many manufacturers. According to one study, 980 tonnes still reach German sewage. But not only the smallest particles could be a danger for oceans and rivers.

Even according to voluntary commitments by manufacturers, a ton of microplastic made of cosmetics as well as detergents and cleaning agents arrive in Germany according to a study. According to a recent study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology commissioned by the Nature Conservation Union (Nabu), it is estimated that around 980 tonnes will be collected each year. Smallest plastic particles entered rivers and seas, as sewage treatment plants did not completely restrain them. In addition, they would also come with sewage sludge on fields and thus in the environment, they said. So far, the industry has concentrated on avoiding microplastic on solid friction from products such as scrubs, said Nabu expert Katharina Istel. In toothpastes, solid plastic particles are no longer used, according to the industry association for personal care and laundry detergents (IKW). In other products such as special cleaners, the amount has been greatly reduced. In Germany, many manufacturers voluntarily committed themselves to the waiver of the friction body, so-called microbeads – with a focus on products that are intended for re-rinsing. Things are different for items such as hair spray or nail polish, which remain on the consumer once, at least partially but later wash in the drain What is microplastics? Microplastic refers to solid and insoluble polymers (plastic) that are smaller than five millimeters. The substance is used among other things by the cosmetics industry as an abrasive, filler and binder. The majority of wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter microplastics out of the wastewater. This allows the particles to enter open waters. Just like larger plastic particles, microplastic is water insoluble and hard to break down. The complete chemical degradation of the smallest particles can take several hundred years. Study author J├╝rgen Bertling said with a view to Microbeads, he sees "no reason to keep the definition so close". According to the Fraunhofer survey, microplastics continue to be used in other functions: for example, to tarnish products in order to be able to form films and as a filler. Against this background, the Nabu demanded a general EU microplastic ban in cosmetics and detergents. As a microplastic particles are called up to a maximum of five millimeters in size. However, other, hardly degradable ingredients are barely recognizable to laymen, complain the conservationists. It is about certain chemical compounds, some of which are considered to be difficult to degrade: so-called dissolved polymers. According to the study, these enter the wastewater in far greater quantities than microplastics. The authors assume 46,900 tonnes annually. The substances act as softeners, dirt deflectors and emulsifiers, for example. Given the high input levels and the unpredictable environmental risks, persistent water-soluble polymers would have to be regulated through European chemicals legislation, Bertling said. The question of how long a substance remains in the environment must be given much greater weight than criteria such as the size of particles. Impacts still uncertain Until now, polymers, including microplastics, are classified as "hardly hazardous to the environment" according to Bertling. However, according to experts, this is also because most of the substances have not yet been tested for their environmental compatibility. The fact that in the Fraunhofer study a common view of microplastics and dissolved polymers is advocated, calls the IKW on request "not justified" and refers to different size, structure and physicochemical properties. In addition, so far "no negative effects" of dissolved polymers in environmentally relevant concentrations are known, and they do not contribute to marine pollution. More on the subject Some experts see it differently: Whether solid particles or "liquid plastics" – the distinction is "hair splitting", both are similarly dangerous, said the environmental chemist Gesine Witt of the College of Applied Sciences in Hamburg. The Nabu designates cleaning agents with markings such as the Blue Angel and certified natural cosmetics as a "better choice" from an environmental point of view. A previous study by the Fraunhofer Institute showed that in Germany a total of 330,000 tonnes of microplastics enter the environment each year. The biggest source is tire wear. Unlike cosmetics, detergents and cleansers, which in many cases are intended to end up in wastewater, the entry from other sources has so far mostly been regarded as hardly avoidable.


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