for sustainable development


Reading recommendation: effects of microplastics on the environment and society

The topic of microplastics has received a lot of attention in recent years, because the tiny particles, which are barely visible to the naked eye, can now be detected all over the world: in the rivers of Europe as well as in the lakes of Mongolia or at the end of their journey – in the seas and oceans of the earth. Aquatic organisms are considered to be endangered because they ingest the tiny plastic particles with their food. But the real extent of the potential risks is far from being researched. The newly published book “Freshwater Microplastics” is dedicated to these risks. Within this publication, the ISOE scientists Johanna Kramm and Carolin Völker will discuss the effects of particles on the environment and society.

About 40 years ago, tiny plastic fragments were discovered in the sea and scientifically mentioned for the first time. With the increasing emergence of small particles in large water bodies, not only awareness of the environmental problems of plastics but also the number of publications on microplastics in the seas and oceans has increased. Only recently, the so-called limnic ecosystems have been taken into account: lakes, rivers and streams. Here too, microplastics have been detected. The book “Freshwaters Microplastics. Emerging Environmental Contaminants?” is the first interdisciplinary anthology devoted to microplastics in flowing waters.

One of the challenges of our “plastic age” is the question of how plastics affect people and the environment and how the effects can be scientifically assessed. Worries include the assumption that microplastics enter the food chain and could also be harmful to human health. Whether it is justified, however, is still controversial in research. In their contribution “Understanding the Risks of Microplastics: A Social-Ecological Risk Perspective”, the authors Johanna Kramm and Carolin Völker show the challenges that science and society face by addressing this global risk topic.

Need for research: Understanding the risks, lifecycles and global distribution plastics

The researchers at ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research are working on systemic risks of plastics. But what are the risks involved? What role do the media play in communicating potential risks? Kramm and Völker focus on responsibilities in production, consumption and disposal of plastics and question current solution strategies, such as voluntary commitments by industry. Can manufacturers help to minimise risks?

In this way, the researchers are addressing questions of the current scientific and public debate. They urgently recommend more in-depth research into unintended side effects. The data available on the potential environmental and health risks of plastics in the environment is contradictory. The hormonal effects of plasticizers made of plastics on organisms living in the water are considered to be largely undisputed, other effects lack reliable data.

Kramm and Völker also recommend intensifying research into the global dimension of plastic pollution and its causes. The debate on waste disposal and recycling is just as important as global plastic goods flows or consumer and producer responsibility. Particularly with regard to countries of the Global South, where a growing middle class is increasingly demanding plastic products, they believe that a momentous consumption scenario with corresponding waste problems is emerging. It is, therefore, necessary to take a global view on the entire life cycle of plastic packaging – from production, distribution, consumption and disposal to the environment. Due to the complexity of the microplastics phenomenon, research should also focus on the question of how society can deal with uncertainty in the face of possible risks in dealing with plastics.

Understanding the Risks of Microplastics: A Social-Ecological Risk Perspective.

In: M. Wagner, S. Lambert (eds.), Freshwater Microplastics, Emerging Environmental Contaminants? The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry 58, Springer, Cham 2018 DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-61615-5

Human geographer Johanna Kramm and ecotoxicologist Carolin Völker lead the junior research group “PlastX – Plastics as a Systemic Risk for Social-Ecological Supply Systems” at ISOE, whose research work is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).



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