Restriction of manufactured microplastics: nanoplastics in the spotlight


On April 26, 2023, the European Commission’s REACH Committee voted in favor of the European Commission’s proposal to progressively restrict the placing on the market of manufactured microplastics. The fate of nanoplastics is confusing: in principle covered by this restriction, they will however benefit from a “temporary” exemption whose deadline is not specified…

A proposal to restrict manufactured microplastics in all sectors

On April 26, 2023, the European Commission’s REACH Committeevoted in favor of the European Commission’s proposal to restrict manufactured micro- and nanoplastics.

This long-awaited restriction proposal1In January 2019, the European Chemicals Agency(ECHA) had proposed to restrict certain micro- and nanoplastics intentionally incorporated by manufacturers. It was only on August 30, 2022, that the Commission presented, after a long period of inertia denounced by NGOs, a proposal to restrict intentionally added microplastics. covers intentionally added micro- and nanoplastics in all application areas. In addition to marketing bans, it also includesinformation andlabeling requirements.

These micro- and nanoplastics are added to a wide range of products for various properties. They are found in cosmetics, in children’s diapers, in cleaning products, in paints, on sports fields, in phytosanitary products, etc. Their release and diffusion in the ecosystems lead to a cascade of harmful effects, insufficiently evaluated, from aquatic fauna to other animals (including humans) that feed on them.

Overall, this text was welcomed by NGOs(Rethink Plastic, ClientEarth, Surfrider, EEB) who have been working on this restriction for years. A week before, 32 NGOs had co-signed an open letter calling for the adoption of the text, while insisting on the need to implement additional measures in Member States to better prevent and reduce emissions of micro- and nanoplastics.

The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union now have a three-month review period, after which the regulation should enter into force immediately.

Great blur on nanoplastics

However, the fate of nanoplastics is confusing. While the proposed restriction does not set a lower limit for the size of microplastics, and includes all small plastic particles, including nano-plastics, it also provides for a temporary exemption from the regulation for nanoplastics, without specifying a deadline…

This temporary exemption would ensure the application of the text, in a context where existing analytical methods are not sufficient to detect, quantify and identify particles of this size, especially in complex matrices (e.g., nanoplastics from degradation found in lake water).

However, this exemption excludes nano-plastics from the scope of the regulation, without specifying the terms and conditions (in terms of timetable in particular). It could incentivize companies to continue using nano-plastics and delay efforts to eliminate or substitute them. In the absence of specific regulations, there is no particular pressure to develop innovative techniques to detect nanos… However, recent progress has been made in this field, in particularly complex samples (taken from sea water, snow, air, sand or agricultural soil)2See Cai, H., Xu, E. G., Du, F., Li, R., Liu, J., & Shi, H. (2021). Analysis of environmental nanoplastics: Progress and challenges. Chemical Engineering Journal, 410, [128208].

In April 2023, the European Commission published a dossier “ Nanoplastics: state of knowledge and environmental and human health impacts “in which it reaffirmed the need to include all plastics smaller than 1 µm (micrometer) in the definition of microplastics. According to the authors of the file, the regulatory response la gs behind in relation to the rate of release of nanoplastics and their abundance in the environment“even though “the smaller the plastic particles, the more likely they are to cross biological membranes and the more likely they are to permeate organisms“.

This brief (or “future brief”) concludes that an inclusive categorization where microplastics also includes nanoplastics will avoid leaving a “gaping hole” in the regulatory regime for intentionally added nanoplastics.

This half-hearted restriction does not come unexpectedly, and the history of this restriction shows that the inclusion – or not – of nanoplastics has been an important issue, especially for industry:

  • ECHA’s first proposal in January 2019 did not exclude nanoplastics from the restriction3Cf: ECHA proposes to restrict intentionally added microplastics, ECHA, January 30, 2019 ; ANNEX XV RESTRICTION REPORT – PROPOSAL FOR A RESTRICTION- intentionally added microplastics, ECHA, January 2019 : “‘Microplastic’ means a material consisting of solid polymercontaining particles, to which additives or other substances may have been added, and where ≥ 1% w/w of particles have (i) all dimensions 1nm ≤ x ≤ 5mm, or (ii), for fibers, a length of 3nm ≤ x ≤ 15mm and length to diameter ratio of >3 “.
  • In June 2020, following lobbying by industry, ECHA had removed nanoplastics from its initial draft restriction.
  • Following this decision, the NGOs mobilized at the European level (the BEE, Customer Earth, Break free from Plastic et Rethink Plastic) had published a report to ask for the reintegration of nanoplastics in the draft restriction of microplastics as initially proposed by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), by restricting them to particles smaller than 5 mm, with no lower size limit. The objective is to avoid an “absurd” substitution of banned microplastics by nanoplastics that would not be affected by the restriction being defined.
  • The European Commission’s proposal of August 30, 2022, voted by the REACH Committee on April 26, 2023, includes nanoplastics in the definition of microplastics but excludes them de facto with the implementation of a temporary exemption.

A regulation that is still too unambitious

Although nanoplastics share many characteristics with microplastics, their interactions with their environment involve risks that are specific to them4See in particular The mobility of plastic nanoparticles in aqueous and soil environments: a critical review, ACS ES&T Water, Brewer, A., Dror, I. and Berkowitz, B., 1(1): 48-57, 2020namely :

  • their ability to penetrate more and varied biological barriers
  • their capacity to adsorb significant quantities of other pollutants (eco-corona)
  • their greater reactivity due to their smaller size
  • the fact that they are too small to be disposed of by existing plastic disposal methods.

However, no precautions regarding the increased risks associated with nanoplastics (apart from their temporary exemption from the scope of the regulation…) have been specified.

In addition, the deadlines for the elimination of micro-plastics in cosmetics and sports fields, set at twelve and eight years respectively, are still disproportionately largeand unjustified. In both sectors, alternatives have already proven themselves in Europe, and have even prompted some brands to call for the acceleration of the process of restricting microplastics in cosmetic products.

The mobilized NGOs, which have repeatedly pointed out these delays, have therefore asked the authorities to implement additional measures in their respective countries to avoid further pollution.

To be continued…

The next nano meetings

NanoSafe conference 2023 (CEA, Grenoble)
  • 8th International Conference on Health Issues for a Responsible Approach to Nanomaterials
  • From June 5 to 9, 2023
  • Organizer: French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission(CEA)
  • Website:…
How the world deals with Materials on the Nanoscale – Responsible Use and Challenges (OECD-BMUV, Berlin)
  • International Conference from June 22 to 23, 2023
  • Organizers: OECD, German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection(BMUV)
  • Website: https: //…
São Paulo School of Advanced Science on Nanotechnology, Agriculture & Environment (SPSAS NanoAgri&Enviro, São Paulo)
São Paulo
  • From July 3 to 15, 2023 in São Paulo
  • Organizer: FABESP
  • Application from November 18 to February 05. Registration fees and travel expenses are covered.
  • Speakers: see the complete program here.

Notes & références