PlastX – Microplastics in bodies of running water

The junior research group PlastX, led by ISOE, is examining the societal role of plastic and its impact on the environment. The sub-project Microplastics in bodies of running water is developing a concept to assess the environmental risks associated with microplastics in bodies of running water.

Research approach

Through the decomposition of plastic waste in the environment, but also through tyre wear, for example, smaller fragments of plastic (microplastics) are created which accumulate in the environment (secondary microplastics); moreover, microplastic particles can be released into the environment directly due to their use, e.g. in cosmetic products (primary microplastics). However, both the risk research and the public debate on plastics focus mostly on the problem of plastics in the world’s oceans (i.e. the “garbage patch”).

So there are correspondingly large gaps in knowledge when it comes to the pollution of bodies of running water with microplastics and the impact of this pollution on the aquatic flora and fauna. Therefore, in cooperation with research partners from the Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main (Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology), the sub-project aims to study the biological effects of microplastics, i.e. their bioavailability, accumulation and toxicity. This includes plastic-associated substances such as additives and adsorbed pollutants which can have damaging effects on the health of living organisms. Together with practice partners, the sub-project will also be developing risk assessment concepts for microplastics which are intended to be a foundation to regulate the entry of microplastics into surface waters.


About 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste annually are released into the world’s seas and oceans via the rivers. The decomposition of plastic waste is widely regarded as one of the main sources of microplastics, but chemical fibres washed from fabrics, tyre wear from road traffic as well as plastic granulate leakage during manufacturing and further processing are sources of secondary microplastics. It has been shown that plastic particles are ingested by various aquatic organisms. There is major uncertainty about potential damage to the ecosystem, which could also impact human health and the food chain. Plastic-associated chemicals (additives such as plasticisers, but also adsorbed pollutants) are also under scrutiny.

The term “plastics” covers a wide range of various different synthetic polymers, which are manufactured on a global scale of about 311 million tonnes per annum. The majority of plastic manufactured is used for packaging, but also in the construction industry.

Research partner

Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main, Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology

Practice partners

Partners of the sub-project come from the fields of environmental consultancy as well as water and waste management.


The junior research group „PlastX – Plastics as a systemic risk for social-ecological supply systems“ is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) as part of the programme „Research for sustainable development (FONA)“. In FONA, PlastX belongs to the funding priority „SÖF – Social-ecological research“ within the funding area „Junior research groups in social-ecological research“.


Catarino, Ana I./Johanna Kramm/Carolin Völker/Theodore B. Henry/Gert Everaert (2021): Risk posed by microplastics: Scientific evidence and public perception. Current Opinion in Green and Sustainable Chemistry , 100467

Kramm, Johanna/Carolin Völker (2021): Wie ist ein nachhaltiger Umgang mit Plastik möglich? Eine Vorstellung der inter- und transdisziplinär arbeitenden Nachwuchsgruppe "PlastX". In: Blättel-Mink, Birgit/Thomas Hickler/Sybille Küster/Henrike Becker (Hg.): Nachhaltige Entwicklung in einer Gesellschaft des Umbruchs. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 175-194

Zimmermann, Lisa/Zdenka Bartosova/Katharina Braun/Jörg Oehlmann/Carolin Völker/Martin Wagner (2021): Plastic Products Leach Chemicals That Induce In Vitro Toxicity under Realistic Use Conditions. Environmental Science and Technology

Sattlegger, Lukas/Tobias Haider/Carolin Völker/Heide Kerber/Johanna Kramm/Lisa Zimmermann/Frederik R. Wurm (2020): Die PET-Mineralwasserflasche. Wasser in Plastik und Plastik in Wasser. Chemie in unserer Zeit 54 (1), 14-20

Völker, Carolin/Johanna Kramm (2020): Dem Mikroplastik auf der Spur. Spektrum der Wissenschaft (9), 58-65

Völker, Carolin/Johanna Kramm/Lukas Sattlegger/Lisa Zimmermann/Patrick Bentheimer/Franziska Elfers/Paula Florides/Nils Feilberg/Viktoria Feucht/Theresa Holzer/Katharina Höfner/Kevin Lenk/Kira Malcherowitz/Wolf Munder/Judith Rahner (2020): Sozial-ökologische Exkursion "Plastik in der Umwelt". Bericht zur Exkursion im Seminar "Sozial- und naturwissenschaftliche Zugänge zu sozial-ökologischen Problemen. Interdisziplinäre Ansätze in der Sozialen Ökologie" vom 3.-9. Juni 2019 in Norddeutschland (Bremen, Butjadingen, Bremerhaven). ISOE-Materialien Soziale Ökologie, 57. Frankfurt am Main: ISOE - Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung

Zimmermann, Lisa/Andrea Dombrowski/Carolin Völker/Martin Wagner (2020): Are bioplastics and plant-based materials safer than conventional plastics? In vitro toxicity and chemical composition. Environment International (106066)

Zimmermann, Lisa/Sarah Göttlich/Jörg Oehlmann/Martin Wagner/Carolin Völker (2020): What are the drivers of microplastic toxicity? Comparing the toxicity of plastic chemicals and particles to Daphnia magna. Environmental Pollution 267 (115392)

Hahn, Annette/Gunnar Gerdts/Carolin Völker/Vincent Niebühr (2019): Using FTIRS as pre-screening method for detection of microplastic in bulk sediment samples. Science of the Total Environment 689, 341-346

Völker, Carolin/Johanna Kramm/Martin Wagner (2019): On the Creation of Risk: Framing of Microplastics in Science and Media. Global Challenges (1900010)

Zimmermann, Lisa/Georg Dierkes/Thomas A. Ternes/Carolin Völker/Martin Wagner (2019): Benchmarking the in Vitro Toxicity and Chemical Composition of Plastic Consumer Products. Environmental Science and Technology 53 (19), 11467-11477


2016/04 – 2021/03

Contact person

 +49 69 7076919-59

Project team