Plastic can be found everywhere in today’s world – in the arctic, on the ocean floor, and on uninhabited islands. Tiny plastic particles have even been found to be present in the cells of animals and plants. Our knowledge of the extent of plastic contamination, however, is surprisingly low: exactly how much plastic is swimming in the oceans, where it comes from, how it behaves in rivers and seas, and what effects it might have on animal and humans, remains largely unknown.
Germany’s Federal Ministry for Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung - BMBF) is taking on this topic with its current research focus, an initiative called “Plastic in the Environment – Sources • Sinks • Solutions.” This umbrella initiative involves over 100 academic and private sector institutions, and aims to investigate the entry of plastic into the environment as well as to identify and implement solutions to the plastic problem.
In order to reach the initiative’s overall goal of noticeably reducing plastics in the environment, the various research projects address diverse aspects of the plastic lifecycle, namely:
- analysing plastics’ entire value chain, from production and use to recycling and disposal
- indexing transfer of plastic particles in the environment from entry points and accumulation areas on land to rivers and finally oceans
- accounting not just for ecological consequences, health effects, and technical aspects of plastic contamination but also economic and socio-cultural factors
- looking at the global nature of the problem
- tackling questions of socio-political relevance as well as those concerning government and governance in a broader context - such as how to construct a political agenda and initiate entrepreneurial activity around solving plastics contamination
The “Plastic in the Environment” research focus enhances and builds on measures already begun as part of the BMBF’s larger green economy initiative “Research for Sustainable Development” (Forschung für Nachhaltige Entwicklung – FONA): a research programme on microplastics in the oceans internationally funded and coordinated by JPI OCEANS, an ongoing project on microplastics in the hydrologic cycle supported by funding for sustainable water management, and a socio-ecological research group called PlastX.