Plastics can be found almost anywhere in the world – in the Arctic, on the ocean floor, and on deserted islands. However, little is known about the actual extent of plastic pollution worldwide. To help close this knowledge gap, the BMBF is funding 18 research projects. These investigate where plastics enter the environment, identify ways to reduce plastic contamination, and help implement proposed solutions. The accompanying project PlastikNet supports the research projects by promoting knowledge exchange and networking.
Research on plastics in freshwater systems features only few isolated investigations so far; an overall understanding of plastics’ points of entry, their spread, and the resulting effects including risk analysis for humans does not yet exist. More research has been done on (micro-) plastics in marine systems. However, the state of knowledge is still patchy as well. The projects in this research focus therefore aim to close existing knowledge gaps.
In the framework of a green economy, the private sector has a multitude of approaches to reduce the entry of plastics into the environment. There is potential along the entire value chain, from polymer design and production through the use phase and disposal/recycling to collection and use of floating sea trash as a basis for new products. Within the framework of this research focus, solutions for closing the “leaks” through which polymers leave their closed lifecycle will be elaborated, together with relevant actors from affected sectors.
From a social-ecological perspective, the focus on plastics – aside from production and commercial handling – should be on consumption. This involves e.g. changing the unencumbered use of plastics, testing the acceptance of plastic alternatives, and removing microplastics from indispensable consumer products (tooth pastes, shower gels, etc.). Consumers can also contribute to higher plastic recycling rates. Finally, testing which positive effects may result from reduction in plastic production and use of plastic goods constitutes another research factor in this vein.
Recycling contributes significantly to avoidance of plastics’ departure from the economic value chain into the environment and thereby into marine ecosystems. However, previous research on microplastics has shown that recycling as a whole should be differentiated. Scientific research can contribute ways of weighing positive aspects of various types of plastic recycling against the intensification of the microplastics problem they may be causing, as well as the pros and cons of plastic waste management through combustion (burning).