we need to address the microplastic sources


The plastics strategy – a starting point for more sustainable use of plastics?

Address the sources of microplastics, reconsider the use of sewage sludge on land, and take into account the hazardous chemicals in plastics. Researchers at the Baltic Sea Centre provide clear advice in an open consultation on the EU plastics strategy.

Text and film: Henrik Hamrén

Marine researcher Marie Löf explains the main messages in Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centres' consultation on the upcoming European Plastics Strategy. Filmed and edited by Henrik Hamrén.

The European Commission is drafting a plastics strategy that is likely to be presented in December 2017. It is a part of EU’s Circular Economy Action Package, and is expected to focus on three main issues:

  • high dependence on virgin fossil feedstock
  • low rate of recycling and reuse of plastics
  • significant leakage of plastics into the environment

– The plastics strategy is like a roadmap. It gives us a direction on how to work more sustainably with plastics, how to reduce marine litter, but also how to increase for example recycling of plastics and reduce single-use plastics, says Marie Löf, ecotoxicologist at Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Centre.

Address the microplastic sources

She and her colleagues recently answered an open consultation from the Commission on the upcoming strategy. The focus was on microplastics sources, and potential measures to prevent the particles from being released into the marine environment. 

– Our main message, from a marine perspective, is that we need to address the microplastic sources that are either released directly into the sea, such as boat paint, or enter the sea through wastewater treatment plants or storm water run-off, says Marie Löf. 

The latter includes microplastics in for example makeup, scrubs, or other personal care products that are washed off after use, as well as the release of microfibers from from laundry of synthetic textiles and the abrasion of car tyres.

Sludge with microplastic particles is spread on arable land

Depending on the size of the plastic particles and the effectiveness of wastewater treatment, some of the microplastics that reach the wastewater treatment plants will enter the sea with the wastewater effluent, while the rest ends up in the sludge. It is still uncertain where the plastic particles in the sludge eventually end up after being spread on, for example, arable land and what the possible environmental effects might be over time.

– One should consider whether it is advisable to spread sludge from wastewater treatment plants on arable land or other land types, because most of the larger microplastic particles that reach the wastewater treatment plants end up in the sludge, says Marie Löf.

Our use of plastics affects the marine environment

Large amounts of post-consumer plastics are released into the sea every year – from larger plastic objects to microplastic particles – which can cause a range of negative effects on marine organisms. The Baltic Sea is no exception. According to Marie Löf, the use of plastics in the nine countries surrounding the Baltic Sea might affect the organisms living in the sea.

– Large plastic litter can cause death or injury to animals through entanglement or ingestion. And microplastics, the smaller particles, also constitute a problem because most organisms, from the small plankton to the large marine mammals, can ingest these particles, which might harm important functions such as growth and reproduction.

Science is still unable to provide all the answers regarding effects of plastics on aquatic life, especially when it comes to microplastics and the even smaller nanoplastics.

– There is evidence, mostly from the laboratory, showing that high concentrations of plastics are harmful, says Marie Löf, and points out that there are also studies showing that organisms can be harmed by microplastics at concentrations that are close to those found in nature.

Plastic marine litter can leach hazardous chemicals

Furthermore, it is important to also address the problems with larger plastic marine litter, and the use of hazardous chemicals in plastic production, says Marie Löf.

– The hazardous substances that are leaching from the plastics might end up in the sea and harm the life there. 

According to the Commissions' roadmap for the plastics strategy, it should help Europe improve recycling, cut marine litter, and reduce usage of potentially dangerous chemicals in plastics. According to Marie Löf it is high time for society to start acting smarter around how it produces, uses, consumes and recycles plastics.

– I hope the plastic strategy can be a starting point, and contribute to a more sustainable use of packaging materials and plastics, she says.

FACTS: Plastics production will quadruple by 2050

  • The worlds’ plastics production is 20 times higher than in the 1960’s, and is forecasted to almost quadruple by 2050.
  • In Europe, post-consumer plastic waste is either incinerated with energy recovery (39 %), landfilled (31 %) or recycled (30%).   
  • The Circular Economy Action Package, adopted in December 2015, proposes raising the recycling target for plastic packaging to 55%, and reducing landfilling to no more than 10% by 2030.
  • A 2016 report estimates that about half of the plastics waste collected and recycled is treated in the EU, while the other half is exported, mainly to China.

Source: European Commission

Marie Löf