Prohibit plastics? Use the term ‘essential use’!

Amsterdam, 04 November 2019 – How do you distinguish between useful and harmful plastics? Scientists refer to the concept of ‘essential use’, which is used in the Montreal Protocol. They applied it to PFAS, a group of substances classified as very worrying. The same principle can also be useful to approach plastics.

The Montreal Protocol and essential use

One of the most successful international environmental agreements ever is the 1987 Montreal Protocol. This agreement provides for the cessation of the use of hydrofluorocarbons suspected of affecting the ozone layer. However, some hydrofluorocarbons are considered ‘essential’ for our health, safety or for the better functioning of our society. They will not be banned unless there is a safe alternative. Therefore, the Montreal Protocol’s assessment yardstick consists of three categories: substances can be non-essential, substitutable or essential. See the recent article advocating this approach for PFAS.

Essential use and microplastics in personal care products

When we apply this measure to microplastics in care products, we immediately see that this use is not essential. The microplastics do not contribute to better health, more safety or a better functioning of society. Alternatives are also available. But manufacturers still use them for marketing or financial reasons, because microplastics are cheap. Since the microplastics used in care products are harmful to the environment, they should be internationally qualified as non-essential and then banned worldwide.

Essential use and medical applications

But how do you judge a plastic prosthesis? Nobody would want to ban it. The same assessment framework can explain such plastics as ‘essential’. This is the case when a certain application contributes to our health and safety and no alternative materials are available yet.

Of course, this assessment framework offers scope for discussion. After all, who decides, for example, how the criterion ‘better for society’ is to be fulfilled? But in the end, this discussion does provide the answers we are looking for and the instruments to effectively combat plastic pollution.

Read more – ECHA proposes to ban intentionally added microplastics