Why have many countries banned microspheres?

Environment - What shelves look like when removing microplastic products

What the shelves look like when you remove microplastic products

Microplastics can be found in numerous cosmetic items. Now there is a threat of a ban. But how much microplastic is really there in shower gel, make-up and the like? We took a closer look at the cosmetics shelves in shopping centers.

They are called "Acrylates Copolymer", "Polyethylene" or "Nylon-12" and are not exotic plant species, but names for different types and components of plastic.

For a long time, the cosmetics industry in particular used microplastic beads made of polyethylene. Because the beads are practical. They clean skin, hair and teeth mechanically, hardly trigger allergies and are cheap to produce.

But when it became known that the microspheres were released into nature through sewage and reappeared not only in bodies of water and soil, but also in milk and honey, an outcry went through the population.

The UN declared war on miniature plastic last year. By 2022, cosmetic products should be free from plastic particles, according to the demand. Some countries, including New Zealand, Canada and England, have already committed to more restrictive policies. From June there will be a ban on microplastics in cosmetics.

Not only internationally, but also on a European level, polyethylene and Co. are at the fore. In a strategy paper on plastic waste, the EU Commission writes that the process for the use of intentionally added microplastics in products should be restricted.

There is also resistance in Switzerland. Green National Councilor Balthasar Glättli submitted five proposals to parliament on the subject of microplastics. Glättli also advocates a ban on microplastics in cosmetic articles. But the federal government declines. At least on a national level. He appeals to the industry to take responsibility. "The Federal Council does not consider it sensible to enact regulations for the use of microplastics in personal care products," says the statement.

The industry responded to the demands. Many cosmetic companies removed polyethylene from the list of ingredients. But what looks like a good reaction turns out to be a drop in the ocean at second glance. The cosmetic companies switched from polyethylene to acrylates copolymer. A liquid plastic that is soluble in water, but its concrete effects on the environment have so far hardly been researched.

If you look at the cosmetics shelves in large shopping centers and paint the products that contain plastic in solid or liquid form, the picture is frightening. Up to 3⁄4 of the products contain plastic particles.

Car tires are the big problem

A sobering result. Nevertheless, the cosmetic products are not responsible for the majority of the microplastics in water and soil. "A large proportion of microplastics in the EU, and probably also in Switzerland, comes from tire wear or weathered plastic from road markings and paintwork," says Michael Hügi, an expert on municipal waste at the Federal Office for the Environment (Bafu).

According to a study by the University of Bern, 53 tons of microplastics are found in Swiss floodplain soils. There are 8 trillion microscopic particles in Lake Zurich - weighing 141 kilograms. The researchers were even able to detect plastic in the soil in the high mountains.

That sounds like a lot. But in an international comparison, as Manuel Kunz, responsible for monitoring water quality at the Federal Office for the Environment, says: "The microplastic content in Swiss waters is not alarming - compared to the plastic waste in the oceans." A garbage vortex is drifting in the Pacific, which is thirty-eight times larger in area than Switzerland. 30 percent of it should be microplastics.

But Kunz adds. Of course, the plastic particles are not wanted in the waters and contaminate them. "But compared to micropollutants such as pesticides or hormone-active substances, which have a direct influence on organisms and are often toxic, microplastics have a lesser effect on water quality."

Consequences unknown

Little research has been carried out into what impact mini-plastic particles have on people. It looks a little different with animals, but there are still many questions unanswered. According to Greenpeace, many fish and mussels eat the microplastic because they mistake it for plankton. This damages the digestive organs of the animals, causes inflammation or even death. Research has shown that a serving of mussels contains around 90 particles of plastic.

"Compared to micropollutants such as pesticides or hormone-active substances, which have a direct influence on organisms and are often toxic, microplastics have less of a negative impact on water quality."

Manuel Kunz, Federal Office for the Environment

Another problematic aspect of microplastics is its surface: biofilms form on it, in which microorganisms such as bacteria, micro-algae and fungi live. Pathogens that cause cholera, diarrhea or inflammation can also develop among the bacteria. And the more of these pathogens, the more worrying it is for humans.

When will the microplastics ban come in Switzerland?

Everyone is talking about a ban on microplastics. But Switzerland is hesitant - at least at the national level.

A Swiss position paper that was written for the UN reads quite differently. In it, the Department for the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communication (DETEC) writes that the “status quo is inadequate” and at the same time proposes a ban on microplastics. This is not only confusing for National Councilor Glättli: “The Federal Council is open to the UN against a ban on microplastics in personal care products. But when it becomes concrete, he blocks. "

Josef Tremp, head of the industrial chemicals section at Bafu, sees no contradiction in the two statements made by the federal government. "If the industry should not take the announced voluntary measures, the federal government would be ready to introduce a microplastic ban," said Tremp. For now, however, we will wait to see what measures the EU will take.