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The disastrous levels of microplastic pollution
Faraway countries lure you on vacation with exotic dream beaches. Once in the idyll, plastic waste lying around is often noticeable. The large objects are of course the most annoying for the well-being. It is the microplastic particles that make up the true level of pollution. According to the Fraunhofer Institute, microplastics are now almost everywhere in the air, in drinking water and in food.
In the two-year “Microplastics Consortium Study”, scientists from the Fraunhofer UMSICHT institute determined the current extent of microplastic pollution on behalf of the plastics industry, water management, waste management and research. The results are anything but reassuring. The researchers were able to pinpoint 51 sources of microplastics, which release a total of four kilograms of microplastics per capita each year. The amount of larger plastic waste, on the other hand, is “only” 1.4 kilograms per head. A short version of the study results can be viewed on the institute's website.
Plastic waste between sand and shells
On some beaches, the small plastic fibers can be discovered by taking a closer look between sand and shells, but microplastics are not always visible to the naked eye. So far, plastic particles that are smaller than five millimeters have been considered microplastics. However, the Fraunhofer scientists see no generality in this definition. "Rather, a definition should be based on the environmental impact," reports the main author of the study Jürgen Bertling in a press release on the study results.
It is difficult to meet all requirements
The task of documenting the extent of the pollution turned out to be a mammoth project. "It is difficult to meet the regulatory, scientific and communication requirements together," said Bertling. By specifying the size and restricting it to specific plastics or areas of application, the problem may not be properly limited. According to the environmental expert, the current level of knowledge on this topic is not yet sufficient.
New classification of microplastics
In the course of the study, the individual types of microplastics were reclassified. Type A microplastics, according to the Fraunhofer definition, originate from industrial plastics processing, in which pollution is accepted, such as plastic balls used as peeling in shower gel. With type B, the pollution only arises as a result of the use phase through abrasion and weathering. The institute cites car tires, shoe soles, textiles and paints as examples. The third category is plastic waste such as packaging, bags or bottles that get into the environment and break up or fragment there.
Assignment of guilt
The institute would like to use these categories to determine who is involved in the pollution and to what extent. The determination of the sources should also clarify the question of responsibility, because depending on the respective source, the responsibility lies more with the producer or with the end user, the scientists emphasize.
51 sources of microplastic pollution
The Fraunhofer researchers identified 51 microplastic sources and calculated the emissions from the respective sources. For example, tire abrasion, release from waste disposal, abrasion of bitumen in asphalt, pellet losses and drifts from sports and playgrounds were identified as the largest sources in Germany. Cosmetic pollution ranks 17th. The study authors emphasize that it is important to reduce pollution from all sources, regardless of placement.
Only the smallest part of the plastic pollution is visible
In total, the Fraunhofer team was able to determine a total of four kilograms per head, which unfiltered migrates into the environment every year in Germany. In contrast, the emissions of macroplastics, i.e. larger plastic waste, would only be around 1.4 kilograms per person per year. What you see in plastic waste at rest areas, in parks and on the beach is therefore the far smaller part of the pollution.
Is the sewage sludge a starting point for cleaning?
According to the study, a portion of the microplastics can be collected in the sewage treatment plants. This then ends up in sewage sludge, which in turn is used for agricultural and landscaping purposes. This is how the microplastics come back into circulation. "Here it must be checked in individual cases whether a complete incineration of the sewage sludge is preferable to agricultural and landscaping use," explains Bertling.
A hard summary
“We can assume that microplastics are already in all areas of the environment,” summarizes the author. This results simply from the fact that plastics are used everywhere and emissions are spread via wind and water. So it is no wonder if microplastics can be found in the air, in drinking water and also in food. Even if no concrete hazard potential has yet been shown, everyone involved agrees that plastics in the environment must be reduced.
New ways to prevent plastic from entering the environment will also be demonstrated at the Cradle-to-Cradle Congress (C2C Congress), which the non-profit association will host at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg in September. C2C has set itself the goal of rethinking products and services from start to (new) start, so that in the end there is as little waste as possible.