Plastic degradation is a global threat that affects our planet and our health. According to a new study published by Hull York Medical School (United Kingdom) in March 2022, for the first time, microplastic pollution has been discovered lodged deep in the lungs of living people. In the same month, microplastics were also detected in human blood, showing that these particles can not only enter the body but travel around and possibly lodge themselves in people’s organs. Made of synthetic polymers, microplastics are small pieces of plastics, usually smaller than 5 millimetres, which do not biodegrade and tend to accumulate once in the environment. Microplastic pollution is now ubiquitous across the planet, from the summits of the Himalayas to the bottom of world’s deepest ocean trench, and to the placentas of pregnant women. As a result, there is increasing concern regarding the impact of microplastics on the environment and human health.
Despite the huge problem that microplastics pose, there is currently no single European law that covers microplastic pollution in a comprehensive manner. The European Commission now wants to reduce the amount of unintentionally released microplastics in the environment, including those from automotive tyres. As a result, the Commission plans to publish its legislative initiative by the end of 2022 and needs feedback from key stakeholders, such as representatives of civil society and health experts. The public consultation is open for feedback until 17 May 2022.
Microplastics from tyres
EPHA has been working on tackling air pollution emitted by the road sector for a long time now. As part of its work on tackling the health impacts of non-exhaust road emissions, EPHA is focusing more on microplastics emissions from tyre abrasion. According to preliminary research led by the Commission, microplastics emissions from automotive tyres in the EU 27 equals approximately 450,000 tonnes per year.
As tyre and road wear particles (TRWP) are caused by the friction process between tyres and the road surface, the best solution to decrease tyre wear emissions is to tackle it at the source by reducing driving mileage. EPHA supports switching to active and shared mobility such as walking cycling and public transport, wherever possible. Promoting active mobility reduces the consumption of fossil fuels and consequently carbon emissions, whilst also improving health by increasing physical activity. It is also important to promote the shift of freight transport from the roads to more efficient and less polluting rail and waterways. Similarly, vehicle weight and tyre wear are correlated: as the load increases, the tyre wear emission also increases. Hence, decreasing the size and the mass of vehicles reduces TRWP as well as their CO2 emissions, life cycle ecological footprint, and road accident risks. EPHA is in favour of establishing a regulatory framework that precisely limits the mass, power, and speed of cars, as developed by the LISA (LIght and SAfe) car project. The current trend towards ever bigger and heavier SUVs cannot continue.
Another key solution that the European Commission must consider is improvements in tyre characteristics including banning tyres with high microplastic emissions from the market with a clear limit value for abrasion. In contrast to exhaust emissions, there are no tyre abrasion limits in the EU and no labelling of tyre’s based on their abrasion performance. As a result, poorly performing tyres are present on the EU market. These are not just bad for health and the environment but also hurt consumer pockets through poor durability. However, the recently revised Tyre Labelling Regulation is expected to provide a standardised test method to determine the abrasion rate of tyres. This regulation will make it possible to test their abrasion performance and set a limit value to remove the worst performers from the market. The test method could also allow information on abrasion, lifespan and microplastic release to be included in the tyre energy label.
Finally, it is crucial that tyre manufacturers develop new tyres with less tyre wear emissions. To encourage manufactures to take action, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) approach should be taken. EPR is a policy under which producers are given significant financial or physical responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. Assigning such responsibility to tyre manufacturers for microplastic pollution would incentivise prevention of microplastic pollution at the source and promote product design for the environment and health.
These actions will beyond doubt improve air quality across Europe.
- For more information on the production, use and recycling of plastics their consequences for our health, read “Turning the Plastic Tide” by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL, 2020).
- Microplastics found deep in lungs of living people for first time (The Guardian, 2022)
- Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood (Environment International, 2022)
- Microplastics found near Everest’s peak, highest ever detected in the world (National Geographic, 2020)
- Plastic Bag Found at the Bottom of World’s Deepest Ocean Trench (National Geographic, 2019)
- Chemical mapping of tire and road wear particles for single particle analysis (Science of The Total Environment, 2021)
- Tackling the health impacts of non-exhaust road emissions (EPHA Event, 2021)