PlastX – Plastic waste in seas and oceans

The junior research group PlastX, led by ISOE, is examining the societal role of plastic and its impact on the environment. The sub-project Marine Litter Governance from a multiscalar perspective is analysing management strategies to solve the global environmental issue of plastic waste in the world’s seas and oceans.

Research approach

Today, tens of thousands of particles of plastic waste are floating in every square kilometre of the ocean. This flotsam has a serious impact on the marine flora and fauna. Initially, the shipping and fishing industries were regarded as being the primary cause of this pollution. Meanwhile, however, experts agree that large amounts of plastic waste are washed into the oceans from the world’s land masses via the rivers. The global community has therefore already adopted a series of environmental conventions to protect the seas and oceans, such as the international convention MARPOL. In addition, a number of regional conventions have come into force, such as OSPAR and HELCOM or the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive. There are also a great number of regional initiatives that organise clean-up and awareness campaigns, among other things. However, although many stakeholders in government and society have recognised the problem, no binding agreements or action plans have yet been implemented. In no small measure, this is a result of the complex constellations between the various stakeholders: Many different interests need to be balanced against one another, and responsibilities defined.

Against this backdrop, the research project is studying the implementation process of management strategies and is debating supporting and inhibiting factors. A long-term and sustainable minimisation of plastic pollution in the world's oceans can only be achieved through a combination of global regulations and regional initiatives. Among other things, case studies and expert interviews will be conducted in order to analyse the connections between these (political) levels. In particular, interviews with experts will capture the perspective of globally active stakeholders and initiatives on international, national and regional management strategies. The goal is to identify starting points for how plastic might be dealt with sustainably over the long term (good global governance). In case studies, regional initiatives which implement minimisation strategies in areas with a high pollution rate will be examined. The aim here is to develop best practices for sustainable waste and water management together with regional stakeholders, as well as with partners from the international cooperation community. This will include studying what relevance these best practices (can) have for global action plans.


About 311 million tonnes of plastic are manufactured annually. Due to improper waste disposal, about 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of this plastic is washed into the world’s seas and oceans via the rivers. Of this, the remains of packaging materials and fishing nets make up the largest share. There are also small plastic fragments such as those used in cosmetics, for example, or also fibres from fleece fabrics. Sewage treatment plants cannot detect these microplastic particles yet, so the particles are washed into the oceans via the rivers. These large and small plastic items pose a danger for marine fauna: fish, sea birds and other aquatic organisms such as mussels and snails come into contact with the plastic or ingest it, which can lead to injury or starvation.

Currently, there are about 13,000 plastic particles per square kilometre floating on the surface of the ocean. However, this is only the ”tip of the plastic mountain” because about 70 percent of the waste sinks to the bottom of the sea or accumulates in deeper oceanic layers. “Business-as-usual” scenarios predict that by 2050, as much plastic as fish (by weight) will be floating in the world’s seas and oceans. Therefore, a key task will be to minimise the entry pathways into the (aquatic) environment. Within this context, the quality of waste management (how high is the proper waste disposal and recycling rate) will play an important role.

Practice partners

The partners of the sub-project „Marine Litter Governance from a multiscalar perspective“ come from the fields of development cooperation and nature conservation.


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“.


Kerber, Heide (2023): Postcard Motifs and Littered Landscapes: How the Inglorious Relationship Between Tourism and Waste (Re)Shapes Phu Quoc Island's Appearance. Practicing Anthropology 45 (2), 13-17

Kerber, Heide (2022): Traum trifft Realität. Wie Plastikverschmutzung das Image Balis verändert. Geographische Rundschau (12), 28-29

Kerber, Heide/Johanna Kramm (2022): From laissez-faire to action? Exploring perceptions of plastic pollution and impetus for action. Insights from Phu Quoc Island. Marine Policy 137, 104924

Kerber, Heide/Johanna Kramm (2021): On- and offstage: Encountering entangled waste-tourism relations on the vietnamese Island of Phu Quoc. The Geographical Journal , 12376

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

Kerber, Heide/Johanna Kramm (2020): Der Müll in unseren Meeren. Ursachen, Folgen, Lösungen. Geographische Rundschau (7/8), 16-20

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

Wang, Ce-Xia/Dan Huang/Jun-Hui Ji/Carolin Völker/Frederik R. Wurm (2020): Seawater-Degradable Polymers - Fighting the Marine Plastic Pollution. Advanced Science 2001121

Kramm, Johanna/Carolin Völker (2019): Mikroplastik-Risiken im Spiegel der Medien und der Wissenschaft. Der Bürger im Staat 69 (4), 209-215

Kerber, Heide/Johanna Kramm (2019): "Man muss einfach irgendwann anfangen". südostasien - Zeitschrift für Politik Kultur Dialog (2/2019)

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

Jaeger-Erben, Melanie/Johanna Kramm/Marco Sonnberger/Carolin Völker/Christian Albert/Antonia Graf/Kathleen Hermanns/Steffen Lange/Tilman Santarius/Barbara Schröter/Sievers-Glotzbach/Janis Winzer (2018): Building Capacities for Transdisciplinary Research. Challenges and Recommendations for Early-Career Researchers. GAIA 27 (4), 379-386

Kerber, Heide/Johanna Kramm (2018): Researching marine litter on the island Phu Quoc, Vietnam. Watersolutions (2), 26-28

Kerber, Heide/Johanna Kramm (2018): A paradise struggles with trash. Visit Phu Quoc Visitors Guide (10th Edition Jan-Jun), 72-73


2016/04 – 2021/03