The European Commission has microplastics on its agenda. But what initiatives are there to tackle the release of microplastics and what measures are being put in place to reduce the impact of microplastics on the environment? FashionUnited lists them.
As always, we start at the beginning: with what microplastics are, why there are concerns about pollution and the role/contribution of the fashion industry.
No time to read the whole article? You will find a summary at the end of this article.
- These are microplastics (and why there are concerns about them)
- The role/contribution of the fashion industry to microplastics pollution
- How the European Commission plans to tackle the microplastics problem and the current state of affairs
1.What are microplastics?
In the EU, microplastics are defined as very small pieces of plastic, usually smaller than five millimetres.
“Microplastics can either be manufactured and added to products to confer specific properties (“intentionally added microplastics”) or can be released into the environment as a result of manufacturing processes or wear and tear of products containing plastic (e.g. synthetic textiles) or a result of improper use of plastic or, recycling and disposal of plastic waste ("unintentionally released microplastics"), lawyer Lucas Falco, with expertise in EU regulation related to plastics and ESG, among others, explained to FashionUnited (September 2023).
The European Commission has plans to tackle both intentional and unintentional releases of microplastics (more in section 3).
Why are microplastics a concern?
The biggest problem is that these small plastic particles do not degrade. “As microplastics can’t be eliminated, they end up and stay in the environment for a very long time, especially in the water and soil, and can be found in food and drinks, creating risks to human health,” explains Falco. We ingest microplastics through our food and drinking water.
2. What does the textile industry have to do with microplastics?
How the textile industry is linked to microplastics
The synthetic textile industry is considered one of the biggest contributors to microplastics. Falco added: “According to the European Environment Agency, approximately 8 percent of European microplastics released to oceans are from synthetic textiles. Globally, this figure is estimated at 16 to 35 percent . Between 200,000 and 500,000 tons of microplastics from textiles enter the global marine environment each year."
A bit of background:
Artificial or synthetic materials are basic materials made by humans in factories (i.e. these fabrics do not come from nature like cotton and wool, for example).
During the production process of clothing made from artificial fibres and later also in the use phase (especially when you wash your clothes, more on that in a moment), these garments release tiny plastic particles. As many as 1,900 microfibres can come off one synthetic garment per wash. And our washing machine filters do not stop these tiny particles of plastic.
“Most microplastics are released when washing synthetic textiles, with the highest amount released in the first five to ten washes, reports the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA),” says Falco.
By the way, wearing textiles also releases microplastics. The microplastics end up in the air (due to wear), causing us to also inhale plastic.
3. What about legislation? What are the EU initiatives to tackle the release of microplastics?
Upcoming measures aimed at reducing the impact of microplastics on the environment
“In 2018, as part of the European Strategy on Plastics, the European Commission committed to further examining policies and regulations aimed at reducing the unintentional release of microplastics in the environment,” added Falco. “In 2022, the Commission launched a call for evidence to gather the views of interested stakeholders on a possible legislative initiative to reduce the presence in the environment of unintentionally released microplastics from tyres, textiles, and plastic pellets.”
“In relation to textiles, the Commission is considering measures such as requiring the use of biodegradable fibres instead of synthetic fibres, setting minimum requirements and/or labelling regarding the level of microplastic emissions from textile products and developing standardised measurement methods for unintentionally released microplastics. The exact publication date of these proposed measures is still uncertain, but they are expected to be published by the end of 2023,” said the Brussels lawyer.
The above legislative initiative complements the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. In addition, EU directives are being developed, such as the Anti-Greenwashing Directive (“currently being discussed by the Council of the EU and the European Parliament”) and the Green Claims Directive (“also in the negotiation phase”), which are aimed at ensuring that consumers receive fair(er) and objective(r) information about the sustainability characteristics of products and 'that sustainability labels on products are objective and fair and the reflect reality'.
Falco: “While the content of the legislative proposal on the unintentional release of microplastics in textiles is still unclear, one might expect the Commission to adopt requirements to ensure that clothing is worn for longer, but also that the proposal will include washing instructions/recommendations for consumers; imposing pre-washing obligations on factories before clothing can be placed on the market; and the promotion of alternative raw materials instead of using synthetic fibres, etc.”
In addition, the European Commission approved another important proposal in March 2022: the Regulation on Ecodesign for Sustainable Products. “This proposal seeks to mitigate the environmental impacts of products throughout their entire life cycle by setting performance and information requirements (also known as ecodesign requirements) for specific categories of products to improve their environmental sustainability,” explains Falco. The requirements include crucial sustainability aspects such as reusability (“by this I mean that products must be reused, for example after repair, rather than replaced with new ones”) and minimising substances that complicate circularity. Textiles and footwear will be product categories that the Commission will prioritise. The Ecodesign Regulation is expected to be adopted by the end of 2023.
France is not waiting for the EU plans
“While the EU is working on measures and methods to counter microplastic releases, France is leading the way. The country wants to display information on the environmental impact of textile products on a label, with a methodology to calculate the environmental impact of textiles, including microplastic releases. France plans to issue a decree (read: government measure, ed.) in 2024 with the methodology to calculate the environmental impact of textile products and the format the label will take.” p>
Do you want to reduce the release of microplastic fibres? These are a number of innovations/products already available:
- AEG has developed a microplastic filter for washing machines. The product can be purchased for 79.99 pounds via the AEG website.
- Guppy Friend has developed a laundry bag that collects microplastic fibres during the washing cycle. The laundry bag costs 29.75 euros and can be purchased via the Guppy Friend webshop.
- Cora Ball is a ball you can add to your laundry that catches microplastics and prevents their release. The ball is available for 42 US dollars via the brand’s webshop.
There are also washing machines being developed. Patagonia and Samsung are working on a washing machine that will reduce microplastics by up to 54 percent, the two parties announced last January. The washing machines are expected to be available later this year.
Finally; Wearing clothes in your closet for longer and washing them less often also helps.
- Microplastics are small plastic particles, smaller than 5 millimetres, that are found everywhere in our environment; on land, at sea and in the air.
- The fashion industry makes a significant contribution to microplastics pollution. For example, when garments made from man-made fibres such as polyester are washed, microfibres are released and end up in the water. Microplastics pose an environmental problem because they persist and accumulate for years, impacting ecosystems, animals and the food chain. They also pose risks to human health.
- The European Commission has put the microplastic pollution problem on the agenda (for the measures and plans see section 3).
- Input Lucas Falco, lawyer at the Brussels law firm Edson Legal, September 2023.
- ECHA, European Chemicals Agency, hot topic 'microplastics', accessed September 2023.
- European Environment Agency briefing 'Microplastics from textiles: towards a circular economy for textiles in Europe', from February 10, 2022 / last modified on February 10, 2023, accessed on September 10, 2023.
- European Strategy on Plastics: European Commission Communication from the commission to the european parliament, the council, the european economic and social committee and the committee of the regions, A European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, January 16, 2018: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:52018DC0028
- European Commission EUR-lex website Communication from the commission to the european parliament, the council, the european economic and social committee and the committee of the regions, EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, March 30, 2022: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52022DC0141
- European Commission EUR-lex website Proposal for a Directive on empowering consumers for the green transition and annex, March 30, 2022
- European Commission Proposal for a Directive on Green Claims, March 22, 2023
- European Commission Proposal for Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, March 30, 2022
- Plastic Soup Foundation Position Paper 'Microfiber release from clothes after washing: Hard facts, figures and promising solutions', May 2017
- Mark Anthony Browne,Phillip Crump,z Stewart J. Niven, Emma Teuten, Andrew Tonkin,z Tamara Galloway, and Richard Thompson (2011) , Worldwide: Sources and Sinks, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2011, 45, 9175–9179
- Artificial intelligence (openAI tools) was used for the text and images of this article. Text was subsequently edited.
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