Microplastics release to the environment

What does paint or ink has to do with it?

I. Introduction

Most studies that deal with analysing environmental pollutions from plastics define Microplastics by their size as being less than 5 mm in diameter. The pollution of seas and waterways with Microplastics is considered a major threat to sea life and potentially also to humans consuming fish or other sea creatures.

These Microplastics can be divided in two categories.

  • Small plastic particles that result from the degradation (‘wear and tear’) of larger plastic articles (litter such as packaging materials; rubber tyres; synthetic fibres from textiles etc.). These are known as ‘secondary Microplastics’.
  • Small plastic particles that are intentionally added to mixtures (microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics) and which during their use or disposal could reach the environment and then release from the mixture. These are known as ‘primary Microplastics’.

These manmade plastics when they reach the environment are known to remain there as they do not chemically degrade (except bio-degradable ones).

II.Europe and Microplastics

The EU Commission in November 2017 saw reasons to trigger a restriction for intentionally added microplastics. Quote:

A number of Member States had already taken measures to ban the use of Microplastic particles (also referred to as plastic microbeads) in some products for consumer and other uses. Some of these provisions appear to constitute a restriction on the use and the placing on the market of Microplastic particles.

The European Chemical Agency (ECHA) was therewith assigned to address on a Union wide basis the use of Microplastics in the production of various products for consumer and professional use that get into the aquatic environment. A proposal for restriction according Annex XV of REACH was issued by March 2019.


Remark: this restriction does not address the secondary Microplastics.

The proposed restriction in Europe comprises three types of measures:

  1. Restriction on the placing on the market; where the use of Microplastics will inevitably result in releases to the environment. Highly relevant for cosmetics; detergents and crop protection. Not relevant for paints or inks.

Uses that are derogated from this ‘prohibition of placing on the market’ for reasons under par. 4 (already restricted) + par. 5 (film-forming and matrix) are obliged to a:

  1. Labelling requirement; par. 7. To show any relevant instructions for use to avoid releases of microplastics to the environment, including at the waste lifecycle stage. Besides instructions the formulators of mixtures should also indicate the content and identity of the polymers used so that industrial end-users of these mixtures can make reports on the estimated releases of Microplastics.
  1. Reporting requirement; par. 8 to improve the evidence base on the remaining uses of Microplastics.

Users of Microplastics are held to make every year a report on the volume estimates of Microplastics they are suspected to release.

III. Waterborne Paints and Inks impacted and CEPE position.


ECHA uses for Microplastics the following definition: ‘microplastic’ means a material consisting of solid polymer-containing particles’. It looks like every use of a man-made solid polymer < 5 mm is in scope. And ECHA claims that dispersions (however not solid in the common sense) should be in scope.

While waterborne paints and inks make use of such dispersions or polymeric additives within these size limits they are considered to be subject to this regulation.

CEPE position

The original cause for addressing microplastics stems from the detection of Microplastics (mainly beads) in open waters whereby these Microplastics were found out to be used for cosmetic products.

Some EU member states have meanwhile banned the use of beads for cosmetics. Clearly restricting the use to the observed problem. But this ECHA proposal is lacking the proof of the release of uses from other uses and approaches the issue from the assumption that ‘from every use of Microplastics there will be release’. Making this restriction a questionable instrument while it cannot other than build its argumentation on assumptions and estimates. Finding its motivation in ‘prevent further accumulation of non-degradable polymers in the environment’. An objective that nobody who adheres to good stewardship would oppose to. But even if a certain use would have no release or were already captured by release preventing measures these would not form a ground for being out of scope. Whatever supply-chain that would use microplastics (as substance or as a mixture) it is by this restriction held to:

  • Inform an industrial user on the quantity and polymer identity that is supplied to him. If such supplier is a formulator that has to comply with this obligation and who uses a mixture of Microplastics in his end-product he would have to reveal his Proprietary Information.
  • Report on theoretical releases calculated as estimates. In the way the Microplastic is defined in this Restriction and the uses it covers it means an enormous number of industrial users will have to report. The reporting under REACH is normally intended to monitor volume development of an individual hazardous substance. Checking if the restriction is effective; if the volume is not increasing and that no new uses for the substance outside the approved ones emerge. With no hazardous characteristic established it would be inappropriate to use the reporting instrument for a wide variety of polymers which form a part of ‘particles containing solid polymer’ (the microplastics) and whereby the particles are only characterised by their dimensions. Besides this reporting will only result in annual estimates from which it will be hard to draw conclusions. Publishing such results will give every microplastic a bad connotation despite that many are having a great societal value.
  • Industrial and professional uses already have measures or protocols in place to avoid releases.
  • Consumer use of mixtures is very wide-spread and its potential for residual release should be addressed via instructions (as proposed in par.7) and be focused on awareness campaigns to change behavior.