The International Joint Commission (IJC) is again at the forefront on waterborne pollutants. After their recent success in both the United States and Canada to obtain measures that will stem the flow of microbeads into North American waters, the IJC has begun a lobbying effort of the two national governments to expand their regulatory efforts to restrict the dissemination of microplastics more generally.

Microplastics range in size between 0.333 mm and 5 mm in size and originate from industrial and consumer sources which have degraded in water and frequently find their way into the aquatic food chain and give rise to a number of toxicological effects.

It is argued that microbeads, as a discrete subset of microplastics were comparatively easy to address as they came from a narrow range of clearly identified sources, such as cosmetics. The broader microplastics class are believed to originate from all types of plastics wastes and their regulation but effective testing to identify the source of microplastics are only in the developmental stage. In October 2016, U.S. EPA continued its Trash Free Waters program, begun in 2014, by hosting a workshop to encourage citizens to be involved in the development of sampling and analytical methods and sampling to detect microplastics. It is expected that research and regulatory efforts relating to microplastics will continue at the federal and state/provincial level in the U.S. and Canada.

The IJC has expressed concern that microplastics represent a potentially serious threat to the Great Lake and that significant knowledge gaps remain to be filled. An April 2016 binational workshop was held to address the problem, giving rise to four preliminary recommendations:

  • encourage a binational pollution prevention plan utilizing multiple approaches and tools
  • propose developing science-based, standardized, binational monitoring and research into product lifecycles, human and ecological health impacts, and best prevention practices
  • advise governments to examine, promote, and support pollution reduction and prevention programs that are existing and effective
  • advocate funding support for local education and outreach programs and organizations focused on pollution reduction and prevention.

Consultation on these recommendations continues until November 10th, 2016, which will likely trigger another opportunity with the respective national regulators for business to become involved in influencing the course of the impending regulation, which may involve the entire product lifecycle of plastics.