The Netherlands is leading; prelude to a European ban on microplastics


Dutch politicians draw attention to Plastic Soup and microbeads

In 2009, the Dutch Minister of Environment, Jacqueline Cramer, was one of the first politicians to draw the attention of the Dutch government, the EU and UNEP to the issue of plastic soup. Microplastics, as a specific issue in the plastic soup debate, have been getting more political attention in the years following Miss Cramer’s initial announcement. During this period it has become clear that microplastics are having a serious impact on the marine environment. . Many consumers are unaware that they are contributing to this issue by washing their faces or brushing their teeth with personal care products containing microbeads. In December 2011, Dutch member of the European Parliament Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (D66) was served with the petition ‘I scrub plastic free’. This had 4000 signatures on it. In that same month Gerbrandy asked the European Commission if is “considering a ban on microplastics in consumer products such as scrubs and exfoliants, which could be replaced by natural abrasives such as salt, bamboo and nut shells”.

The first motion adopted

In November 2012 a majority vote in the Dutch Parliament adopted the motion raised by Manon Fokke (PvdA). This motion requested that the Dutch government talks with industry stakeholders about avoiding the use of microplastics in cosmetics. The government pledges to support a European ban on microplastics in cosmetics. Adding microbeads to cosmetics is firmly on the political agenda.

The first multinational

A month after the motion and under pressure from the campaign, Unilever made a public statement confirming their intent to stop producing cosmetics containing microbeads. This applied to their worldwide market. Belgian MEP Kathleen van Brempt (Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) responds by calling for a ban: “It should be clear that the European Commission must prohibit the use of microplastics in cosmetics. The industry itself is now showing that it is possible and that there are natural and biodegradable alternatives”.

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive

Microplastics are defined as litter in the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). As such, European Member States are compelled to establish and implement the necessary measures to achieve a good environmental status in their marine waters by 2020. The Dutch Government plans to implement the MSFD by addressing direct sources of microplastics, raising consumer awareness and improving product development.

Green Paper

In March 2013, the European Commission publishes the Green Paper on a European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment. Microplastics are of particular concern: “they are ubiquitous and reach even the most remote areas with a concentration in water some times higher than that of plankton. These micro-plastics, and the chemical additives they contain, if ingested in large quantities by marine fauna may have a high potential for contaminating the food chain through predator-prey interaction”. And: “The increasing use of virgin micro-plastics is also a matter of concern. In some consumer products, such as scrub creams and shower gels, producers add micro-plastic instead of natural scrubbing particles. Those particles may end up in the seas as water management systems are not equipped to hold this material back.” (Green Paper, p. 6 and 14).

The European Commission invites citizens, businesses and NGOs in this Green Paper to answer the following question: “How can challenges, arising from the use of micro plastics in products; industrial processes and nano-particles in plastics, be best addressed?”

European Conference in Berlin

Following the publication of the Green Paper, the German Government and the European Commission organise the International Conference on Prevention and Management of Marine Litter in European Seas in April 2013. The conference prioritised the need for solutions to the issue of microplastic pollution. European Commissioner for Environment, Janez Potočnik, was presented with a signed petition from the participating NGOs and conference participants. The petition called for a ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetics, effective from 1st January 2014. The petition is signed by leading scientists, including Professor Richard Thompson (Plymouth University) and Professor Gerd Liebezeit (Universität Oldenburg).

Declaration from the Dutch Government

Immediately after the European Conference in Berlin, Wilma Mansveld (Dutch State Secretary for Infrastructure and Environment (PvdA)) supports a proposed ban in Europe, in favour of the precautionary principle, preventing the use of microplastics in cosmetics. According to the State Secretary there are enough alternatives for the industry to use instead. In June 2013 the Netherlands began to discuss this ban with the European Council.

2014 first half

5Gyres collaborates with Tulane Law School to create model legislation and introduces with New York Attorney General's Office legislation to prohibit the sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act passed N.Y. State Assembly by a vote of 108 to 0. This Act will prohibit the distribution and sale of cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads less than 5 millimeters in size.

Bundesland Bayern is the first German state to call out the industry to voluntarily refrain of putting micro-plastics in their products.

US state Ohio senator Mike Skindell introduces statewide ban on care products with plastic microbeads. 

Pat Quinn the governor of Illinois signed legislation banning the manufacture and sale of care products containing plastic microbeads by the end of 2017 and the sale by the end of 2018. This bill, however, concedes a huge loophole, allowing 'biodegradable plastics' to be used as an alternative. These don't unfortunately break down in a cold, ocean environment - only in a high heat, municipal composting facility. 

Federal legislation that would ban the use of personal care products containing plastic microbeads is introduced by Frank Pallone of the Democratic Party in U.S. Congress.

2014 second half

The Australian environmental minister of New South Wales Rob Stokes wants a national ban on manufacturing and selling of polyethylene microbeads in personal care products. Stokes will convene an industry working group to discuss a voluntary phase out by 2016.

California bill to ban microbeads does not pass the Senate by one single vote.

Angela Hawdon, program director of the Sydney-based Australian arm of Fauna and Flora International (FFI), said the conservation group will work with the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority (EPA) working group and 'liaise with manufacturers to encourage them to find alternatives to microplastics.'

The European Environment Council bans rinse-off cosmetics containing microbeads from carrying the EU eco-label and wants a general ban on microplastics in cosmetics.

The Netherlands is the first country to announce it wants to get rid of microplastics. The Dutch parliament wants the government to press for a European ban on microplastics. The parliament also wants to a step-by-step plan to phase out microplastics in three years together with other countries in the European Union.

2015 first half

Senator Portman (Ohio, VS) of the US Congress is considering legislation banning microbeads to protect Lake Erie and in doing so public health. The Microbead-Free Water Act of 2015 was introduced by Representative Fred Upton (Republican - Michigan), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and Frank Pallone (Democrat - New Jersey).

G-7 summit encourages the industry to tackle the problem of plastic soup and paving the way for microbeads to be banned. Vice-president of the Personal Care Products Council, John Hurson, has supported the Microbead-Free Waters Act in a declaration to the US House of Representatives

In the German parliament, Peter Meiwald (of the Bündnis 90/die Grünen parliamentary party) has called for a ban on microbeads because promises by the industry to do so voluntarily are not watertight. Meiwald has also called for research on the effects of microplastics on ecosystems to be intensified.

2015 second half

California has adopted legislation (AB 888) banning microbeads in personal care products. This legislation is stricter than in other states as it also bans 'biodegradable beads', however it has allowed a long 5-year period to phase out microbeads.

The Canadian government has announced a general ban on microbeads. Microplastics are to be added to Canada's list of toxic substances. Senator Leahy (Vermont, US) supports the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, the proposed federal legislation which bans the adding of synthetic plastic microbeads to cosmetics as of 1 January 2018.

December 2015 Obama signs bill against microbeads: the Microbead-Free Waters Act

2016 first half

Denmark is pushing for a microbead ban in Europe: Denmark is adding to pressure on the European Parliament to take decisive action over the outlawing of microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products sold in the EU.

UK environment minister George Eustrice tells MPs' environment audit committee that the government supports a ban on polluting plastic microbeads in cosmetics. "We now support a ban on microbeads in cosmetics and are working with other EU countries to get it on the agenda at a European level. I think it is right to push ahead with a ban."

Canada recognizes that microbeads in personal care products have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity. Declaring microbeads as a toxic substance allows the government to ban their use.