PlastX – Plastics as a systemic risk for social-ecological supply systems

The junior research group PlastX, led by ISOE, is examining the societal role of plastic and the associated environmental impacts. Within this framework, the team of social and natural scientists is attempting to find out how plastic might be used more sustainably.

Research approach

The group of junior researchers is taking an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research approach and is viewing the issue from a socio-ecological risk perspective. This complex environmental problem is characterised by the interconnected risks associated with the material plastic through its manufacturing, use and disposal. Many actors in various constellations are involved in this, who can both cause risks as well as be impacted by them. In addition, there is uncertainty about the direct and indirect impact of plastics on health and the environment. Because of these characteristics, the subject is conceptually conceived of as a systemic risk.

The overall objective of the project is

  • to conceptually enlarge the theoretical understanding of systemic risks in socio-ecological supply systems, using plastics as an example,
  • to highlight integrative and practical solutions for dealing with the systemic risks of plastics based on the activity fields prevention, alternatives and management.

The problem will be analysed in the following areas:


Plastic is an ambivalent material: On the one hand, because of its versatile properties and wide range of applications, plastic has revolutionized countless areas of everyday life within the last decades. On the other hand, the manufacturing, use and disposal of plastic is linked to global environmental problems and risks which impact various systems. In particular, the accumulation of plastic waste in the natural environment is a serious encroachment upon various ecosystems which, due to the extended decomposition time of most plastics, will bear witness to human dominance during this era for hundreds of years.

The term “plastic” 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 plastics produced is needed for packaging applications. On the disposal side, plastics are either recycled, incinerated, or dumped in landfills in many countries. Every year, about 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste reach the seas and oceans via rivers because they have not been disposed of properly. When plastic waste decomposes, smaller fragments of plastic (microplastics) are created which accumulate in the environment; in addition, microplastic particles can enter the environment directly due to their use, e.g. in cosmetic products. 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), which can have damaging effects on the health of humans and animals, are also under scrutiny.

Research partners

  • Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main, Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology
  • Max-Planck-Institute for Polymer Research (MPI), Department of Physical Chemistry of Polymers

Practice partners

Partners of the junior research group come from the fields of environmental consultancy, development cooperation, food retailing, nature conservation, consumer protection, 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“.

Project duration



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

Kramm, Johanna/Carolin Völker (Hg.) (2023): Living in the Plastic Age. Perspectives from Humanities, Social Sciences and Environmental Sciences. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag

Sattlegger, Lukas (2023): Schritt für Schritt plastikfrei - Trans-Sequentielle Analyse und Innovationsforschung. In: Kolanoski, Martina/Marlen S. Löffler/Carla Küffner/Clara Terjung (Hg.): Trans-Sequentiell Forschen. Politische Ethnographie. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 213-253

Bi, Naomi/Stefanie Steinhoff/Johanna Kramm (2022): Lebensmittelkonsum im Ausnahmezustand (?). Eine Untersuchung von (nachhaltigen) Einkaufspraktiken und die Bedeutung von Verpackungen während der ersten Welle der Corona-Pandemie. Berichte Geographie und Landeskunde 95 (2), 186-202

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

Kramm, Johanna/Nicolas Schlitz (2022): Müll - Macht - Materialität: Politische Ökologien des Abfalls. In: Gottschlich, Daniela/Sarah Hackfort/Tobias Schmitt/Uta von Winterfeld (Hg.): Handbuch Politische Ökologie.Theorien, Konflikte, Begriffe, Methoden. Bielefeld: transcript, 235-244

Kramm, Johanna/Stefanie Steinhoff/Simon Werschmöller/Beate Völker/Carolin Völker (2022): Explaining risk perception of microplastics: Results from a representative survey in Germany. Global Environmental Change 73 (March 2022), 102485

Sattlegger, Lukas (2022): Schwierigkeiten und Potentiale der Verpackungsvermeidung - Eine Arbeitsethnographie im Lebensmittelhandel. Dissertation. Frankfurt am Main: Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität, Fachbereich Gesellschaftswissenschaften

Sattlegger, Lukas/Elisabeth Süßbauer (2022): Packaging as a mediator in networks of practices.A transformational approach towards precycling. Soziologie Und Nachhaltigkeit 8 (2), 139-159

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

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

Sattlegger, Lukas (2021): Negotiating attachments to plastic. Social Studies of Science 51 (6), 820-845

Sattlegger, Lukas/Tobias Heider/Lisa Zimmermann/Carolin Völker (2021): Lebensmittelverpackungen - nachhaltig. Wege zu einer nachhaltigen Gestaltung und Vermeidung von Verpackungen. ISOE Policy Brief, 8. Frankfurt am Main: ISOE - Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung

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

Ernährungsrat Frankfurt/ISOE - Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung (2020): Lending reusable bags. In: Wilts, Henning/Jennifer Schinkel/Lina Feder (Hg.): Prevention of plastic waste in production and consumption by multi-actor partnerships. Bonn/Wuppertal: PREVENT Waste Alliance/Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt, Energie, 36-37

Hennchen, Benjamin/Alexandra Wittwer/Lukas Sattlegger/Melanie Kröger (2020): Soziale Normen, Gewohnheiten und Aushandlungen. Alltagsherausforderungen des verpackungsfreien Einkaufs. In: Kröger, Melanie/Jens Pape/Alexandra Wittwer (Hg.): Einfach weglassen? Ein wissenschaftliches Lesebuch zur Reduktion von Plastikverpackungen im Lebensmittelhandel. München: oekom verlag, 139-156

ISOE - Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung/gramm.genau (2020): Zero waste stores. In: Wilts, Henning/Jennifer Schinkel/Lina Feder (Hg.): Prevention of plastic waste in production and consumption by multi-actor partnerships. Bonn/Wuppertal: PREVENT Waste Alliance/Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt, Energie, 32-33

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

Kramm, Johanna/Tobias Haider (2020): Keine echte Alternative. Bioplastik und konventionelles Plastik im Vergleich. politische ökologie 38 (161), 69-74

Kramm, Johanna/Carolin Völker/Tobias Haider/Heide Kerber/Lukas Sattlegger/Lisa Zimmermann (2020): Sozial-ökologische Forschung zu Plastik in der Umwelt. Ergebnisse der Forschungsgruppe PlastX. Frankfurt am Main

Kröger, Melanie/Lukas Sattlegger/Alexandra Wittwer/Jens Pape (2020): Verpackungsreduzierte Beschaffung. Protokoll einer fiktiven Gesprächsrunde zwischen Einzel- und Großhandel. In: Kröger, Melanie/Jens Pape/Alexandra Wittwer (Hg.): Einfach weglassen? Ein wissenschaftliches Lesebuch zur Reduktion von Plastikverpackungen im Lebensmittelhandel. München: oekom verlag, 305-326

Sattlegger, Lukas (2020): Making Food Manageable - Packaging as a Code of Practice for Work Practices at the Supermarket. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography

Sattlegger, Lukas (2020): Plastikvermeidung als individualisierte Alltagspraktik: zwischen Entpolitisierung und Mikropolitik. Soziologieblog

Sattlegger, Lukas (2020): Die Schwierigkeit des Weglassens. Verpackungsfunktionen im Supermarkt. In: Kröger, Melanie/Jens Pape/Alexandra Wittwer (Hg.): Einfach weglassen? Ein wissenschaftliches Lesebuch zur Reduktion von Plastikverpackungen im Lebensmittelhandel. München: oekom verlag, 101-118

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

Sattlegger, Lukas/Immanuel Stieß/Luca Raschewski/Katharina Reindl (2020): Plastic Packaging, Food Supply, and Everyday Life. Adopting a Social Practice Perspective in Social-Ecological Research. Nature and Culture 15 (2), 146-172

Sattlegger, Lukas/Lisa Zimmermann/Maik Birnbach (2020): Von der unsichtbaren zur durchschaubaren Verpackung. Prinzipien nachhaltiger Verpackungsgestaltung. Ökologisches Wirtschaften 35 (1), 38-42

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

Völker, Carolin/Johanna Kramm (2020): Bioplastik - Kunststoffe der Zukunft?. In: Kröger, Melanie/Jens Pape/Alexandra Wittwer (Hg.): Einfach weglassen? Ein wissenschaftliches Lesebuch zur Reduktion von Plastikverpackungen im Lebensmittelhandel. München: oekom verlag, 393-407

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

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

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)

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

Zimmermann, Lisa/Martin Wagner/Carolin Völker (2019): In-vitro-Toxizität und chemische Zusammensetzung von Kunststoffprodukten. Mitteilungen der Fachgruppe Umweltchemie und Ökotoxikologie 25 (4), 104-106

Haider, Tobias P./Carolin Völker/Johanna Kramm/Katharina Landfester/Frederik R. Wurm (2019): Plastics of the future? The impact of biodegradable polymers on the environment and on society. Angewandte Chemie International Edition 58 (1), 50-62

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

Kramm, Johanna/Carolin Völker/Martin Wagner (2018): Superficial or Substantial: Why Care about Microplastics in the Anthropocene?. Environmental Science and Technology 52 (6), 3336-3337

Kramm, Johanna/Lukas Sattlegger/Jenny Fuhrmann/David Steinwender (2018): Sustainable Transformation of Food Distribution Systems - Research and Practice in a Transdisciplinary Discussion. Results from a conference session on "Sustainable Food Systems" at the 7th Annual STS Conference Graz from 7th-8th May 2018. ISOE-Materialien Soziale Ökologie, 53. Frankfurt am Main: ISOE - Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung

Kramm, Johanna/Carolin Völker (2018): Understanding the Risks of Microplastics: A Social-Ecological Risk Perspective. In: Wagner, Martin/Scott Lambert (Hg.): Freshwater Microplastics: Emerging Environmental Contaminants?. Handbook of Environmental Chemistry, 58. Cham: Springer, 223-237

Kramm, Johanna/Carolin Völker (2017): Plastikmüll im Meer: Zur Entdeckung eines Umweltproblems. APuZ - Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 67 (51-52), 17-22

Völker, Carolin/Johanna Kramm/Heide Kerber/Engelbert Schramm/Martina Winker/Martin Zimmermann (2017): More Than a Potential Hazard - Approaching Risks from a Social-Ecological Perspective. Sustainability 9 (7), 1039

Project management

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Sozial-ökologische Forschung zu Plastik in der Umwelt. Ergebnisse der Forschungsgruppe PlastX Johanna Kramm, Carolin Völker, Tobias Haider, Heide Kerber, Lukas Sattlegger, Lisa Zimmermann (2020). ISOE – Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung. Frankfurt am Main