Study on plastics in care products: good plastic, bad plastic

The Federal Environment Agency accuses Greenpeace of a lack of differentiation in its survey. It is about microplastics in cosmetics.

Every year, 500 tons of microplastics from cosmetics enter the sea Photo: dpa

Whoever throws plastic waste into the water pollutes the environment, that is clear. Anyone who washes their hands with soap – perhaps too. Many cosmetics and personal care products contain microplastics – tiny plastic particles smaller than five millimeters.

They are not or hardly filtered out by sewage treatment plants and thus end up in rivers and the sea. Aquatic animals mistake them for food – they have already been found in mussels, shrimp and fish stomachs. "It is only a matter of time before the particles are also detectable in fish meat," Greenpeace marine expert Thilo Maack is certain. "Plastic does not belong in cosmetics as a precaution."

Another danger is that pollutants dissolved in water stick particularly well to the small plastic particles. Environmentalists therefore fear that the toxins could accumulate in the food chain.

Greenpeace, parts of the SPD, the Greens, the Left, environmental and consumer protection associations are therefore calling for plastics to no longer be used in cosmetics. According to a survey commissioned by Greenpeace, more than 80 percent of consumers also think so.

"View plastics differently depending on the substance"

But the fact that Greenpeace lumps all plastics together bothers Marcus Gast, microplastics expert at the Federal Environment Agency (UBA): "The question did not allow the necessary differentiation between solid microplastics and synthetic polymers," he says. Some synthetic polymers are water-soluble. "It’s a colorful bouquet of different plastics that you have to look at differently depending on the substance," Gast said. There are synthetic polymers, for example, that help clean water in wastewater treatment plants, he said.

The office urges that no substances that are difficult to break down be allowed to enter the environment. "It doesn’t matter whether these are synthetic polymers or chemicals in the classic sense," Gast said. Greenpeace sees things differently: "Even the harmless plastic compounds have no place in cosmetic products," says expert Maack.

A study by the UBA found that 500 tons of microplastics from cosmetics enter the sea every year. From other sources, for example from the abrasion of car tires, it is much more: up to 111,000 tons. These sources also need more attention, Gast said.

"In an overall comparison, the microplastics from cosmetic products are of course a small amount," admits Greenpeace expert Maack. "But it’s a loophole that needs to be closed."