Microplastics are widely dispersed throughout the environment. The risks to people and the ecosystem are still not known. Microplastics are small solid plastic particles (smaller than 5 millimetres), poorly soluble in water and non-biodegradable. Through a variety of sources and routes, a large part of microplastics ends up in the sea. The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) supports policymakers in tackling this problem.

Microplastics can be used as ingredients in products, for example in personal care products. The particles enter the surface water via wastewater. In addition, microplastics are created by the disintegration of litter or during the production and use of plastic products.

Plastic is cheap, lasts a long time and has endless applications. As a result, the use of plastic has grown enormously since the 1950s and is still increasing. A consequence of this is that large quantities of plastic pollute the oceans, seas and rivers and can be found as litter on land. 

Microplastics are small and barely visible, but they may have consequences for the ecosystem because they are present in water, soil and air. The small particles are absorbed into the tissues of, for example, mussels and fish and thus enter the food chain. By ingesting the particles these animals come into contact with substances that have been added to the plastic, such as weakeners that can have a disrupting effect on hormones.

Risks difficult to estimate

To date, it is not known at which concentration level microplastics affects the ecosystem. This is because microplastic is a very diverse material.  It regards different polymers in different sizes and forms, with additives such as plasticizers and flame retardants in a greater or lesser extent.

To take mitigating measures, it is necessary to establish a clear definition of microplastics. It should provide clarity about, among other things, the chemical composition and degradability of microplastics and the delineation with nanomaterials. This way companies are provided with legal clarity, it becomes easier to identify trends in the pollutants and policy measures can be better evaluated.  

Government measures

For decades, governments have been working on an approach to plastic in the environment and have made international agreements about this. For example, in 2008 it was established that European Member States monitor the ecological status of the marine environment and take measures to improve it (the Marine Directive).  The Dutch government employs covenants, Green Deals and awareness campaigns in order to reduce the use of plastic and the spread of microplastics in the environment. Through research, knowledge and expertise RIVM provides Dutch government with policy advice on microplastics. RIVM collaborates internationally with ECHA and the Interest Group Plastics (IG Plastics) of the European Environment Protection Agencies (EPA Network) among others.