Worldwide, 360 million tons of plastic are produced annually, a large part of which is used for packaging. These materials are practical, especially for food, but cause many tons of plastic waste with consequences for the environment. Through improper disposal, every year about five to 12 million tons of plastic waste are discharged into seas and oceans via rivers. When the durable material decomposes, smaller plastic fragments, so-called microplastics, are generated which are then absorbed by various water organisms. Furthermore, sea animals or water birds can get tangled up in the larger plastic waste and die as a result.
The damage to the ecosystems caused by the disposal of plastic is undisputed. However, the direct and indirect environmental and health consequences of the use of plastics are still not well understood. Amongst other things, chemical ingredients or microplastics are discussed in the current publication. So-called plastic-associated chemicals, such as plasticizers, are suspected to have harmful effects on human health and the animal world.
Plastic in the environment as a systemic risk
The problem is indeed complex. The risks associated with the production, use and disposal of plastic are strongly interlinked. Many different actors in various constellations bear responsibility. The question is, how research can address this complexity? The PlastX research group has worked on the systemic risk from a socio-ecological perspective in an inter- and transdisciplinary way. The PlastX group, led by human geographer Johanna Kramm and ecotoxicologist Carolin Völker, has focused its work on microplastics, marine litter, packaging reduction and bioplastics.
In the course of their research work in the fields of human geography, sociology, chemistry and ecotoxicology, the scientists have now developed core messages which also incorporate questions and findings, problem views and everyday knowledge from practical experience. To make this possible, the research team worked together with partners from the fields of environmental consulting, development cooperation, food retailing, nature conservation, consumer protection as well as water and waste management.
Key messages on microplastics, marine waste, packaging and chemical ingredients
The PlastX researchers consider the fact decisive that the multitude of problems posed by plastic cannot be countered with simple solutions. Rather, various and fundamental changes in the use of plastics are necessary. The avoidance of waste entries into the environment plays a particularly important role in this respect. If we look for example at marine waste, we see that it is mainly discharged from land-based sources. Here, it is important to find solutions. Changing consumer habits, the adequate establishment of locally adapted waste infrastructure and the consistent enforcement of environmental protection regulations can all make a significant contribution.
Further key messages refer to solutions in the areas of sustainable packaging, biodegradable plastics and ingredients in plastic packaging. More important information on the sustainable use of plastics is provided by the results of studies on the toxicological safety of plastics for humans and the environment and on the risk assessment of microplastics. The results are now provided in a preliminary publication (only available in German) which will be finalized after the end of the project in 2021. The publication is aimed at science and society i.e. at actors in research and practice, in associations, in industry and in politics.
Sozial-ökologische Forschung zu Plastik in der Umwelt. Ergebnisse der Forschungsgruppe PlastX (Social-ecological research on plastics in the environment. Results elaborated by the research group PlastX – only available in German) Johanna Kramm, Carolin Völker, Tobias Haider, Heide Kerber, Lukas Sattlegger, and Lisa Zimmermann (2020). ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research, Frankfurt am Main. Download