Plastics in the environment

Environmental pollution with plastic is an issue that concerns scientists, decision makers and the general public alike. FRAM, as a part of university-wide activities, is contributing to research and policy advice in particular related to microplastics and marine litter.

Microplastics: a micro issue or reason for widespread concern?

Microplastics are tiny particles under 5 mm in diameter and come from a variety of sources, including plastic production, products, textiles, car tires, fisheries, agriculture, industry, and general waste.

The best available evidence suggests that microplastics do not pose a widespread risk to humans or the environment, except in small pockets. But current knowledge is limited, and the situation would worsen if pollution continues to increase at its current rate. This is the main message of a group of experts from academies across Europe (SAPEA) in a new Evidence Review Report.

FRAM director Professor Thomas Backhaus from the University of Gothenburg is a researcher within toxicology and ecotoxicology of chemical mixtures and has been debating microplastics for some time and is one of the authors of the SAPEA report. He remarks that the simple fact that microplastics are now found in basically every nook and granny of our planet should serve as an eye-opener.

– It is a clear indication that our management of plastic materials needs improvement, says Thomas Backhaus.

The question is how the plastic particles affects the environment and the organisms living within it? The SAPEA report notes that, in controlled experiments, high concentrations of microplastic particles cause physical harm to exposed organisms and can induce inflammation and stress. However, the authors of the SAPEA report point out that concentration levels measured in the real world are well below such concentrations. Then again, the current measurement methods are though still severely limited.

Thomas Backhaus underlines the report’s conclusion that current levels seem to be well below the concentrations proven to cause toxic effects to humans or the environment – with one reservation.

– I would like to point out that current knowledge gaps are substantial, which is why the study of toxic effects of plastic materials is an area of active research. Microplastics lost into the environment will remain there forever and will accumulate over time without any possibility for cleanup.

Taken together with the well-known impacts of macroplastic debris, such as plastic water bottles, shopping bags and fishing nets lost at sea, Thomas Backhaus argues that the available evidence should clearly motivate us to curb our often excessive plastic use.

The report from SAPEA was published by the Science Advice mechanisms for Policy by European Academies and will be used to inform the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors. The report will also be delivered directly to the European Commission in order to advise policy-makers to combat plastic pollution.

What is exceptional about the SAPEA report is that the authors have made a comprehensive examination of the best available evidence from the natural sciences and computer modelling, as well as social, political and behavioral sciences. They highlight that microplastics are found in air, soil and sediment, freshwaters, seas and oceans, plants and animals, as well as in human diet.

Read more: Microplastics in the environment: Much ado about nothing? A debate, by Thomas Backhaus and Martin Wagner and the Evidence Review Report A scientific perspective on microplastics in nature and society published by SAPEA.

Effects on biota?

The fact that plastic is found everywhere is worrying in itself, but the plastic also contains a variety of chemicals, some of which are toxic and leak from the plastic material into the environment. Such plastic-associated chemicals have been found in sharks, turtles, whales, and other aquatic species. In a report ordered by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, Giedrė Ašmonaitė and Bethanie Carney Almroth from the University of Gothenburg write that “major toxicological concerns are associated with the additives found in plastics” and that “chemical exposures associated with plastic-derived chemicals are important when discussing the hazard potential of (micro)plastics”.

Read more: Effects of Microplastics on Organisms and Impacts on The Environment: Balancing the Known and Unknown

Ongoing debates, regulatory action and royal attention

In a policy session on economic incentives and policy instruments on marine plastic pollution during the World Congress of Environmental and Resource Economics in June 2018, it was concluded that there is a need for clear incentives driving producers to take responsibility for the whole life cycle of their products.
Read more: Marine Plastic Pollution in a circular perspective

On European level the issue about microplastics is considered a “hot topic”. The European Chemical Agency recently submitted a restriction proposal for intentionally added microplastic particles
Read more: Microplastics – A hot topic at ECHA and ECHA proposes to restrict intentionally added microplastics

Not only researcher and authorities are worried, even royalties are concerned. The Swedish Crown Princess Victoria recently visited the University of Gothenburg to learn more about plastics and chemicals in the oceans.
Read more: Crown Princess Victoria visits the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences [In Swedish]