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Plastics in the environment: understanding the sources, transport, distribution and impacts of plastics pollution

The aim of this action is to gain a better understanding on the sources, transport, distribution and impact of plastic pollution. The main areas for research activities should include:

a) Sources of plastic pollution to different environmental compartments;

b) Transport and pathways of plastics into and through different environmental compartments;

c) Occurrence and distribution of plastic across all environmental compartments;

d) Accumulation, including in soil and the food chain;

e) Degradation mechanisms for different plastic materials under range of environmentally conditions;

f) Physical and chemical effects of plastic pollution on different biotic and abiotic environments.

This action should aim to determine of the main entry routes of plastics into the different environmental compartments (e.g. marine, surface and groundwaters, soils and air, as well as potential transfers between these compartments. Furthermore, it should investigate the fate and transport behaviour of plastics with the goal of improving our current understanding of exposure within biotic and abiotic compartments. This should include determination of the spatial distribution and variability of plastics from its sources into rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal areas and the open oceans. The research should contribute to the identification of the entry pathways, transport and accumulation within the ecosystems, including the potential for actual accumulations in the food chain (beyond presence in digestive systems).

Proposals should address different ecosystems, geographical areas and spatial scales, including the main environmental media such as marine, surface and ground-water, soils, air and biota. This would require case studies in selected areas, across Europe considering the marine water column and the seabed as well as surface water and terrestrial ecosystems, and comparative data on the contribution of point and diffuse sources and transport pathways to the scale of plastic pollution. To enhance understanding of the processes that drive the transport and fate of plastics in different ecosystems and on different temporal-spatial scales, computational models validated with empirical data, that predict hotspots and sinks of plastics would be also needed. Proposals should also enhance the current understanding of plastic degradation in the environment, including the characterisation of leaching chemicals and plastic degradation products. When the degradation of plastics under environmental conditions cannot readily be predicted based on information available from material sciences, degradation experiments simulating realistic weathering of plastics will inform about the fragmenting process of plastic debris as well as the release of chemicals. Research could cover nano-, micro-, or macro-plastics.

Cooperation with existing national and EU funded activities, such as the JPI Oceans initiative, is encouraged.

This topic is in support of the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. Selected projects under this topic as well as projects selected under other topics in H2020 supporting the Plastics Strategy are strongly encouraged to participate in joint activities as appropriate. These joint activities could take the form of clustering of projects, participation in workshops, common exploitation and dissemination etc. The proposals are expected to demonstrate support to common coordination and dissemination activities. Applicants should plan the necessary budget to cover those activities without the prerequisite to define concrete common actions at this stage.

The Commission considers that proposals requesting a contribution from the EU in the range of EUR 5 million would allow this specific challenge to be addressed appropriately. Nonetheless, this does not preclude submission and selection of proposals requesting other amounts.

To date, efforts to understand the sources, transport and distribution of plastic pollution have mainly focused on the marine environmental compartment. However, it is widely acknowledged that the majority of marine plastic litter originates from land-based sources and that plastic litter of all sizes is prevalent in all environmental compartments (freshwater, marine, terrestrial, biological and atmospheric). To develop long-term mitigation solutions, a thorough understanding of the main sources and transport mechanisms of plastics into and through the environment is needed. This needs to be combined with determination of the quantity and composition, an understanding of plastic degradation processes in different environmental compartments and an assessment of plastics impacts on key species and ecosystems. In order to better support the identification of exposed ecosystems and to help decision-makers in reducing exposures, a wider effort bringing together experiences from different disciplines, such as hydrology, oceanography, limnology, monitoring, modelling, chemistry, toxicology, and risk assessments, and from relevant stakeholders, is needed.

The project results are expected to contribute to:

  • achieving the objectives of the Plastics Strategy, in particular with regard to the possibilities for future prioritisation of measures in Europe (prioritisation);
  • providing a foundation for the development of mitigation solutions, based on improved and new knowledge on plastics pollution;
  • identifying promising intervention points and targeted actions for fighting plastics pollution, in line with of the CE Action Plan and Plastics Strategy;
  • establishing the EU as a scientific leader in the area of understanding and solving plastic pollution.