Suggested policy recommendations in the move against microplastics

England and Wales

An All-Party Westminster Parliamentary Group on Microplastics ("APPG") has published its first report on microplastic policies for the UK Government. The report focuses on plastic microfibres, which are plastic fibres 5mm or smaller in size that are shed from clothing when worn and laundered and are too small to be caught by standard washing machines, meaning that they flow into the wastewater system and eventually into marine environments.

According to the report, the laundering of textiles accounts for up to 35% of the total microplastic load in the ocean. Microplastics are a concern not only because of their impact on wildlife, but also because they can contaminate food – they are easily ingested by marine life and therefore subsequently end up in the food chain. The true extent of the impact of human exposure to microplastics is unknown, however, it is recognised as a potential health concern.

The APPG highlights that the Environment Bill (which is currently making its way through the parliamentary process), does not specifically address microplastics, nor do the commitments made in the Resources and Waste Strategy for England offer a complete solution to this issue. As such, the APPG’s intention is for their proposals to bridge this perceived legislative gap.

APPG’s Proposals

The key proposals arising from the APPG report are for the introduction of:

  • an extended producer responsibility scheme ("EPR") for textiles from 2023;

  • legislation and standards requiring microfibre filters to be fitted into all new domestic and commercial washing machines from 2025;

  • a targeted public behaviour awareness communication campaign on the environmental impacts of plastic microfibre release from the laundry and wastewater treatment cycle;

  • a requirement for washing machine and/or filter manufacturers to communicate to the public how microfibre waste should be correctly recycled or disposed of;

  • incentives to encourage the establishment of recycling technology for microfibres with funding through Innovate UK, to enable UK businesses to deliver viable microfibre recycling solutions at scale; and

  • an Environmental Quality Standard for plastics.

The APPG is calling on the Government to introduce an EPR scheme for textiles from 2023. DEFRA has already confirmed it will consult stakeholders on a proposal for an EPR for textiles by the end of 2022, however, to introduce the scheme by the following year may be challenging. The APPG is nevertheless asking the Government to expedite action in this regard. It has also suggested that to maximise the efficacy of the scheme, incentives are introduced for manufacturing best practice to create longer-lasting garments and the use of sustainable textiles and fabrics with reduced microplastic shedding rates. The report confirms that the APPG supports the Environmental Audit Committee’s call for a 1p levy per garment at the point of retail in order to fund £35 million a year for better clothing recycling and collection, and encourage further investment in domestic recycling and reprocessing and suggests that this is extended for larger retailers.

The APPG highlights that washing machines are not currently provided with microfibre filters as a standard, despite the fact that the washing of clothes causes microfibres to shed and enter the wastewater system. The APPG is therefore calling for legislation to mandate the incorporation of such filters into washing machines from 2025. It suggests that the Government should work with industry to introduce a standard filter that could be fitted either on to or inside a machine, with instructions to be included for the consumer to understand how best to dispose of the microfibres collected. This policy proposal would also require agreed minimum technical and efficacy requirements for the performance of the filters, to be agreed in consultation with pan-European organisations and governments due to the international nature of domestic appliance markets.

EU Developments

Some of the suggestions made by the APPG mirror action that has already been taken elsewhere in Europe. For example, in France, all new washing machines will be required to be fitted with a microfibre filter by 2025 to catch plastic microfibres that come away from clothing during washing. As part of the European Green Deal and new Circular Economy Action Plan, the European Commission announced an initiative to address the unintentional release of microplastics in the environment. It aims to:

  • develop labelling, standardisation, certification and regulatory measures on unintentional release of microplastics, including measures to increase the capture of microplastics at all relevant stages of products' lifecycles;

  • further develop and harmonise methods for measuring unintentionally released microplastics, especially from tyres and textiles, and delivering harmonised data on microplastics concentrations in seawater; and

  • close the gaps in scientific knowledge related to the risk and presence of microplastics in the environment, drinking water and food.

The first stakeholder workshop on a cost-benefit analysis of policy measures reducing the unintentional release of microplastics took place in September 2021, and a public consultation is due to be published this year, focusing on, amongst other areas, the release of microplastics from synthetic textiles during their lifecycle. Arguably, the UK is at risk of being behind the pace of the EU in respect of this issue unless it starts to take tangible action soon.

Next Steps

DEFRA has stated that it is "keeping the compulsory fitting of microplastic filters under close review". A sector alliance, the Cross Industry Agreement, has recently conducted a fibre fragmentation trial to inform an ISO standard, which will likely inform future legislative requirements. With the outcome of the Waste Prevention Programme for England consultation (reported on here) due to be published in Autumn 2021, it remains to be seen whether the APPG's recommendations will be taken into account to address the textile industry's microplastics issue.

Many in the textile industry are, however, already moving ahead regardless of the relatively slow pace of legislative change in this area. In September 2021, the Microplastic Consortium launched a 2030 commitment and roadmap towards zero impact from fibre fragmentation from textiles to the natural environment by 2030. Signatories commit to contributing to the Consortium's data set, reducing fibre fragmentation by adopting mitigation actions, driving progress by participating in task teams and advocating the roadmap and commitment. A number of significant sector players are signatories to the commitment, including Adidas and Boohoo, as well as homeware brands. More generally, the not-for-profit organisation WRAP published its final report on the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan 2020 ("SCAP") Commitment in October 2021, following a number of years of collaborative action with the textiles sector focusing on commitments to reduce the impact of textile products across various key areas, including making changes in fibre and fabric selection that reduce the environmental impact of clothing products. SCAP's legacy is intended to be continued through WRAP’s Textiles 2030 initiative, a voluntary agreement under which signatories commit to accelerating progress towards a circular economy for textiles and reducing environmental impacts, as reported on in more detail here.

Textile producers and appliance manufacturers alike should continue to monitor developments in this regard both in the UK and at EU level, particularly as the timeframes for the introduction of new measures are likely to be relatively short.  Consideration should be given to the potential changes that could be required within supply chains to respond to future standards on product design, labelling and the introduction of EPR for textiles. There have also been calls for a UN global treaty on plastic pollution, which would establish an international framework under which governments would commit to a coordinated set of actions and policies to address the issue of plastic pollution at scale. This may lead to the introduction of regulatory standards, national targets and common reporting metrics and methodologies across the plastic value chain. If taken forward, this will no doubt have far-reaching consequences for businesses across various industry sectors, albeit a more harmonised regulatory landscape may prove easier and potentially less costly to navigate.