Plastics are composed of polymers, which are large molecules made up of repeating building blocks. They can be complex combinations of different blocks. Many plastics contain additives. These are substances added to improve the properties of a material, for example to add colour or elasticity or to reduce flammability.

Drawbacks of plastics

  • Plastics have some major drawbacks that are forcing us to rethink their use.
  • Plastic waste ends up as litter on land and in oceans, seas and rivers.
  • The smallest plastic particles can be harmful to animals. Laboratory research has also started to reveal adverse effects on human health.
  • Microplastics are found everywhere, including inside our bodies. We still do not know the exact effects of this on our health or on other organisms.
  • Many plastics contain potentially harmful additives, such as plasticisers and flame retardants. The building blocks of plastics may themselves be hazardous substances.
  • Germs and micro-organisms can adhere to and spread via microplastics.

Rethinking plastic use

To reduce the burden on the environment, we have to use fewer plastics and use those we need more efficiently. Examples of how we can do this include looking for alternative materials and using plastic products for longer. Our lack of knowledge about the potential long-term health risks of plastics is another good reason to use fewer plastics and use them more efficiently. Plastics recycling has also improved, enabling them to be used and retain their value longer. Read more about how to use plastics safely at (in Dutch).

What are microplastics?

All plastics break down to some extent over time. Plastics are also subject to wear and tear from use, eventually breaking down into microplastics. Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5 mm. Some are visible to the naked eye, but the smallest are not. Microplastics are everywhere: in the water, in the air and in the soil.

Different shapes of microplastics

Microplastics vary not only in size, but also in shape. There are small spheres as well as flakes and fibrous particles. Microplastics also vary in composition. They are composed by  many different polymers, plus additives such as plasticisers and flame retardants. All microplastics are poorly soluble in water and are not biodegradable.

Shape and size determine spread in our bodies and the environment

The shape and size of microplastics can affect how they behave in the body. They also influence how the particles disperse into the environment. Larger particles do not spread as far as the very smallest microplastics.

Primary and secondary microplastics

  • Primary microplastics are intentionally added to some products, such as cosmetics, to perform a specific function. This class of microplastics is also often added to pigments, dyes and abrasive cleaning agents.
  • Secondary microplastics are the result of larger plastics breaking down into fragments, for example due to wear or weathering.

The European Commission is working on rules to minimise the use of primary microplastics in products.

You can read more about this on the website of the European Chemicals Agency.