LEGCO QUESTIONS

Impacts of microplastics on the ecosystem and human health

22 Nov 2017
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LCQ5: Impacts of microplastics on the ecosystem and human health

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Following is a question by Hon Kenneth Leung and a reply by the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Wong Kam-sing, in the Legislative Council today (November 22):

Question:

At present, some manufacturers add microbeads of less than 1 mm in diameter to toilette products for the purpose of achieving the claimed effects of cleansing the skin and exfoliating dead skin cells. Some studies have found that microplastics (i.e. plastic pellets or flakes of less than 5 mm in diameter or length, including plastic fibres as minute as having a diameter or length of only 1 μm) are commonly present in the potable water of a number of countries. Some green groups have pointed out that the toxic substances that have adhered to and accumulated onto the surface of microplastics may find their way into the human body through the food chain, thus posing health hazards. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) as the authorities have indicated in reply to a question raised by a Member of this Council in April 2015 that in Hong Kong, there was limited information and research on microbeads, and the authorities had no statistics or inventory on those beauty and skin care products containing microbeads on sale in Hong Kong, whether the authorities have subsequently conducted the relevant researches and compiled the relevant statistics, and whether they have evaluated the impacts of microplastics on Hong Kong’s ecosystem and human health; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that;

(2) whether the Water Supplies Department will consider conducting regular tests on the concentration of microplastics in the water bodies of reservoirs and domestic fresh water, and publishing such results on a regular basis; whether any technology is currently employed in sewage treatment works to remove microplastics from sewage; whether the Drainage Services Department (DSD) has tested, on a regular basis, the concentration of microplastics in treated effluent; if DSD has conducted tests, since when such tests were conducted and of the outcome of those tests; if not, whether DSD will consider conducting such tests; and

(3) given that the Government of the United States legislated in 2015 against the production and sale of toilette products that contain microplastics, and the governments of places like Taiwan and Korea have indicated that they will legislate in this regard expeditiously, whether the authorities will enact legislation expeditiously to regulate the sale of products containing microplastics in Hong Kong?

Reply:

President,

Microplastics refer to plastics that are less than 5 millimetres (mm) in size, including microbeads and microfibres. Microplastics can be categorised as “primary” or “secondary” according to their sources. Primary microplastics such as plastic raw materials or microbeads are products intentionally manufactured through industrial process, while secondary microplastics are generally break-down products of abandoned plastics and refuse degraded after entering the environment. Therefore, microplastics may originate from additives in personal cleansing and care products (e.g. toothpaste and cosmetic skin care products, etc.), as well as degraded clothing, carpets and plastic substances.

The potential impact of microplastics on ecological environment and human health remains to be a pretty fresh topic of global concern, which mainly focuses on two aspects. First, when microplastics are discharged with untreated or incompletely-treated sewage into enclosed water bodies such as lakes, they may gradually accumulate and may be consumed by aquatic organisms as food. Second, microplastics could hardly be further degraded in or be removed from the natural environment once entered into waters or the sea. If toxic substances attach to or build up on their surfaces, the microplastics may impact on the entire ecosystem or even human beings when they pass up the food chain. Scientists worldwide are still exploring and studying the issue, and have yet to fully understand the environmental fate of microplastics, as well as their environmental and ecological impact. Nonetheless, the international understanding is that precautionary measures should be put in place as early as possible to reduce plastics entering the marine environment.

Regarding drinking water, the Water Supplies Department (WSD) monitors the quality of drinking water in accordance with the Hong Kong Drinking Water Standards which adopts the Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality of the World Health Organization (WHO). At present, the WHO has not yet included plastic fibre material as health-related parameters that need to be monitored. Global researches on plastic fibre material and its monitoring method are still in the early stage. The WSD has engaged consultants to collect information on the topic of plastic fibre material and to conduct a review of its risks on drinking water safety. The WSD will also closely monitor the development of related international researches. If the researches find that the presence of plastic fibre material in drinking water will pose a risk on drinking water safety and relevant benchmark can be set, the WSD will work with the experts and consult relevant government departments to consider including plastic fibre material into the monitoring programme and take corresponding measures.

As for the toxic substances in the aquatic environment, the monitoring data of the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) show that the levels of toxic substances in our marine waters, sediments and biota are relatively low. They also fully comply with the standards for protection of marine life and human health adopted both locally and overseas, such as the United States, Canada, European Union, Australia and Japan.

On the removal rate of microplastics by sewage treatment works, currentlythere has not been any local research conducted, and we do not have data on the removal rate of microplastics by chemically enhanced primary treatment works. As microplastics are suspended solids, sewage containing them discharged into the sewerage system will be conveyed to chemically enhanced primary treatment works for suitable treatment, including the sedimentation process. Making reference to their removal rate of suspended solids being at least 80 per cent, we anticipate that the existing sewage treatment facilities in Hong Kong should be capable of removing most of the microplastics in sewage.

According to the EPD’s communication with relevant overseas countries or regions through various channels, some countries or regions have announced their plans to regulate certain microplastics-containing products through legislation, mainly targeting at rinse-off products for personal care and cosmetic purposes, e.g. face cleanser and shower cream, etc. Some countries or regions also encourage consumers to use other alternatives such as natural vegetation to replace microbeads so as to reduce the amount of microplastics entering the sea.

In the case of Hong Kong, personal care and cosmetic products in local market are mainly imported from overseas. The EPD has a preliminary grasp that the top 10 imported international brands account for about 60 per cent of the local retail market for personal care and cosmetic products, with the brands from France, Japan and Korea dominating the market. Some of these brands have already announced that they will cease the manufacture of products containing microplastics in the coming few years. At present, there are rinse-off products without microbeads available locally, and more and more products are using other alternatives.

To assess more accurately the impact of microplastics in the local context, and to learn more about the specific details and implementation approaches of the bans on personal care and cosmetic products containing microplastics in the international arena, the Government will commence a consultancy study within a few months to formulate proposals applicable to Hong Kong. Subject to the analytical results of the consultancy study, the Government will consider conducting environmental analytical studies on microplastics in Hong Kong. The scopes of these studies may include marine waters, sediments, biota and pollution sources (such as discharges from sewage treatment works and stormwater drains), etc.

The EPD also plans to launch measures to encourage the business sector to stop selling personal care and cosmetic products containing microplastics. Consumers will also be encouraged to purchase and use other alternatives to replace microplastics products to reduce the risk of such substance entering the sea and causing pollution.

Thank you, President.