Microplastics

Position paper

Background

Headlines like »Microplastics overburden wastewater treatment plants«[1], »Plastic particles found in food«[2], and »Tiny plastic particles contaminate drinking water«[3] show that the discussion about microplastics pollution is becoming increasingly important in the public debate. A definition of microplastics is given in the box on the bottom of this web page. There is a strong need for scientific research on this topic in order to avoid possible misleading conclusions based on speculations and unproven assumptions due to the lack of information and knowledge.

In the opinion of Fraunhofer UMSICHT, it is imperative to intensify the scientific research on the issue of microplastics. The growing amount of microplastics in the aquatic environment due to increasing plastic production and unregulated disposal can turn into a serious problem for mankind and nature. This issue requires an early development of sustainable solutions.

[1] Spiegel online Wissenschaft: »Schadstoffe: Mikroplastik überfordert Kläranlagen«, October 2014
[2] NDR, »Markt«: »Plastikteilchen in Lebensmitteln gefunden«, July 2014
[3] Die Welt online: »Winzige Plastikteilchen verunreinigen Trinkwasser«, September 2013

Necessary steps

  • Avoidance of plastic discharge into ecosystems through global expansion of suitable monitoring and collection systems and logistical optimization in handling and transportation of plastic products
  • Development of bio-based materials that degrade in the environment compartments cascade-like in reasonable periods (e.g. for cosmetics and cleaning products or packaging)
  • Development of technical methods to reduce microplastics discharge, e.g. by applying filtration techniques on the pollution sources (sewage treatment plants, washing machines etc.)
  • Standardization of assessment methods
  • Exchange of information between scientific communities, industry and public
  • Raising the awareness and changing the consumer behavior with regard to plastics – through scientifically sound and understandable communication on the topic
  • Providing incentives to reduce the plastic discharging and furthermore to actively remove the plastics from the environment, e.g. by expanding polymer harvest systems for fishing industries and fishing fleets in rivers and seas or by executing waste plastic collection campaigns

Microplastics

The American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) together with the international and scientific consensus define microplastics as »plastic particles up to 5 mm in diameter«[4]. A basic distinction is made between primary and secondary microplastics.

Primary microplastics are industrially produced plastic moldings (i.e. microbeads), which can be found e.g. in hygiene articles such as shower gels or peelings. Other kind of primary microplastics are the so called »resin pellets« - cylindrical plastic granulates which are used as raw material for the manufacturing of plastic products. These pellets are frequently transported by large container ships and can get into the water cycle during transshipment, through accidents or illegal disposal.

Secondary microplastics include plastic fragments and microplastic fibers. The fragments are formed in waters and on land by mechanical processing or by exposure of larger plastic parts - such as packaging, plastic bags or utensils made of plastic - to the radiation. The microfibers emerge from synthetic clothing, dissolve during washing and are emitted into the water cycle with the water discharge from the washing machine.

[4] http://www.unep.org/yearbook/2013/pdf/Microplastic_english.pdf