The European Commission should impose more stringent measures on producers to protect the environment and consumers. Making producers responsible for their products throughout their whole life cycle benefits us all, writes Oliver Loebel.
Oliver Loebel is the secretary-general of EurEau, which represents the EU’s water sector
Plastics are an integral part of life for most of us, from household objects to food packaging and many, many products we cannot see.
Tiny particles from these end up in the environment and ultimately in our food and water sources as well as the air we breathe. A minor share of these can also enter wastewater treatment plants (WWTP).
Conventional water treatment can efficiently remove between 80-95% of microplastics, which is known as an end-of-pipe solution. They are often then incinerated, adding to CO2 released into the atmosphere.
There is no evidence so far that these microplastics are harmful to our health if they do end up being consumed. However, we believe that prevention is better than cure.
Innovative technology installed in some treatment plants can remove close to 100% of the microplastics in wastewater. Consumers pay for this additional treatment through higher water bills. But the EU has legislation in place to ensure that producers prevent, limit or remove microplastics entering the environment in the first place. So how come water consumers are paying for the clean-up?
Unfortunately, this control-at-source legislation is not always enforced, despite it being more sustainable and effective. Rigorous implementation will protect the environment and keep water affordable for us all.
Making producers responsible for the full life cycle of their products will significantly contribute to keeping microplastics out of the environment (Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR). This means that the producer has to examine the component materials that go into their products and how these break down to affect the environment.
The EU is currently reviewing all of its water legislation to benefit each of us. Will our policymakers take the opportunity to cement the Control at Source, Polluter Pays and Precautionary Principles into our directives and regulations?
We want the European institutions to:
- adopt Control at Source and EPR more thoroughly by making producers responsible for the whole lifecycle of their products including preventing the release to or removing microplastics from the environment
- encourage the development of innovative products that are environmentally-friendly and use eco-design and ecolabel criteria, and
- raise awareness amongst citizens and encourage them to make more environmentally-conscious decisions.
The legal basis we need to protect our health exists. However, the end-of-pipe solutions that we currently rely on are not sustainable.
We, therefore, welcome ECHA work towards a REACH restriction on intentionally added microplastics. If such control at source measures are not sufficient, a holistic approach should be applied to address the many ways microplastics can enter the environment, with action taken where it will be most effective.
Whatever happens, producers must remain responsible for the products they put on the market.
The European Commission should impose more stringent measures on producers to protect the environment and consumers, to the benefit of us all.