Humans produce over 300 million tons of plastic each year and much of it ends up in the oceans. So much, in fact, that there’s a “plastic continent” floating around in the Pacific Ocean, and – get ready for this – most table salt contains ocean microplastics.
But the plastic problem isn’t just about pollution, even if that’s a big enough issue in itself and frequently covered by the media, such as image friendly beach cleanings and triggering news about plastic bag taxes. In fact, plastic is a problem long before it’s waste.
“Plastic is a problem long before it’s waste”
As always, the devil is lurking in the details. And the details of all plastics are the chemicals they are made of – so called polymers* – whose identities have so far remained hidden.
What most people don’t know is that the chemical part of the plastic problem is actually discussed and decided on during quite unspectular committee meetings, far away from media attention.
“Polymers have been exempted from the registration obligation. Until now.”
In 2006, along with the EU chemicals regulation REACH, came the obligation that chemical companies must register the chemicals they produce. Before that, you could more or less produce and sell whatever chemical you wanted without notifying authorities. However, polymers have been exempted from the registration obligation. Until now.
The Commission has committed to have at least some polymers registered under REACH requirements by 2022. Exactly how many “at least some” amounts to is not known; the number of different polymers on the market is estimated to be between 70,000 and one million.
What is being debated right now in one of these policy committees is what information the industry should need to submit to authorities about the polymers, and which polymers should be registered first.
At ChemSec, we see the lack of basic data for widely used polymers as a big problem. We know that certain plastic types and additives are very toxic and highly problematic, but have far too little knowledge about most polymers.
It’s understandable that the huge amount of polymers makes it necessary to prioritise. For that reason, polymers produced at high volumes as well as the ones known to generate microplastics should be among the first to be fully registered.
“Polymers produced at high volumes as well as the ones known to generate microplastics should be among the first to be fully registered”
In addition, polymer producers should at least be required to notify authorities that production of a potentially very problematic material is happening. As of right now – yes, you guessed it – there’s no such requirement.
We shouldn’t stop cleaning beaches. But without exposing the secret ingredients hidden in the plastic sauce, we have no chance of making the production and use of plastics safer.
ChemSec, together with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), have produced two position papers where you can find all the details of our proposal:
- Success factors for polymer registration under REACH
- The importance of registering microplastic generating polymers under REACH
*A polymer is a large, chain-like molecule built from smaller molecules called monomers. Different polymers serve as base for different types of plastics, whose properties can be altered by adding different additives, such as pigments, stabilizers, antioxidants and softeners.