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Microplastics in Europe's freshwater ecosystems: From sources to solutions

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - LimnoPlast (Microplastics in Europe's freshwater ecosystems: From sources to solutions)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-10-31

Plastics have become an indispensable part in our everyday life. As a large proportion of these plastics are manufactured for disposable use, post-consumer plastic waste has dramatically increased whereas the percentage recycled remains low. So far, humankind has produced 6 300 million tons of plastic waste of which 79% has accumulated in landfills or natural environments as a consequence of inadequate waste management or littering. For example, the World Economic Forum estimated that 32% of plastic packaging is leaking worldwide into the environment. Emissions occur across the life cycle resulting in the accumulation of plastic debris on a global scale. Plastic can be produced as or degrade to so-called microplastics which have been detected ubiquitously in marine and to a lesser extent freshwater environments across the globe. Microplastics are a potential emerging risk to biota, economy and society. Microplastics are small, mobile and persistent, and, thus, bioavailable for a broad range of biota, transfer through food webs and may negatively affect ecosystems. The unsustainable use and leakage of plastic materials result further in economic losses. These ecological and economical risks resonate in society and the majority of Europeans are concerned about the environmental and health effects of microplastics, accordingly.
While there is political awareness and willingness to solve the plastics issue most actions currently focus on the oceans. In contrast, most plastic litter is produced on land and emerging research demonstrates that freshwater ecosystems are affected by microplastics pollution. Since freshwater microplastics emerge as major future challenge for Europe’s freshwater ecosystems and the latter are fundamental to public health and economic activities, the intention of the EU-funded International Training Network LimnoPlast is to close knowledge gaps on the issue of freshwater microplastics and provide the necessary evidence to enable and inform effective prevention and mitigation measures.
The LimnoPlast project has a four-pronged approach: data assessment, training, technological solutions and behaviour change. The project will analyse the sources and impacts of freshwater microplastics, and train scientists at the coal-face of the microplastics issue. The goal is to develop innovative solutions to remove microplastics from the environment, and find environmentally-friendly polymers. Finally, the project will promote communication and policy interventions to address the problem of microplastics at the system level.
LimnoPlast challenges traditional barriers between disciplines and sectors and combines environmental, technical and social sciences in order to tackle the microplastics problem from its sources to potential solutions in a holistic approach. LimnoPlast fostered a cross-fertilisation of usually distant scientific communities such as environmental (ecologists, toxicologists), technical (polymer chemists and engineers), and social/behavioural scientists (economists, psychologists, jurists).
LimnoPlast generated a unique scientific ecosystem for young scientists. They perform research in environmental toxicology and, macromolecular chemistry and environmental, and economics, social/behavioural science, and law. LimnoPlast further enabled the young scientists to bridge disciplinary borders and to work at the interface of multiple research areas, by collaborations with participants from the private, government, and non-profit sector. These new interconnections will be used to transform an environmental challenge to innovation
LimnoPlast applied the transdisciplinary approach along the life cycle of plastics, tracking the technical and societal sources of the microplastics contamination in freshwater environments. For end-of-use plastics, we traced the sources of microplastics in freshwater systems in the Aarhus region and the Greater Paris area. LimnoPlast already harmonised sampling and analysis methods based on existing expertise. In addition, we started to assess the impacts of microplastics on freshwater biota and public health. Specifically, we compare the toxicity of microplastics originating from commodity plastics and biodegradable polymers. LimnoPlast has already developed novel bio-based polymers, which are promising to reduce microplastics contamination in the future. Further, the utility of waste water treatment plants as a convenient and efficient point of stopping microplastics before they contaminate the environment is further studied in depth in the Paris/Seine catchment. In addition, an innovative method to capture nanoplastics is developed. Covering the whole plastics lifecycle LimnoPlast captures current societal risk and benefit perceptions, mental models, behavioural, and legal aspects regarding freshwater microplastics. This new understanding of the sources and impacts of microplastics will guide the development of innovative prevention, mitigation measures, and technological and social innovation.
LimnoPlast will generate comparative data on the sources of freshwater MP, the toxicity, and degradability of conventional and new polymers as well as removal technologies. Overall, this new knowledge will be used to inform the policy framework and relevant stakeholders in publicly available benchmarking reports. Standard Operation Procedures to Monitor Freshwater Microplastics and for Polymer Degradation have already been developed. All results will be exploited scientifically, and the results will be open for immediate public information and political exploitation. The development of novel polymers and a removal technology for polymer residues during plastics production has a significant potential for commercialization. Regarding the new bio-based materials, market prospects are foreseen in the packaging sector (e.g. as drinking bottles). In terms of the removal of MP from industrial wastewater, partners from industry have a strong commercial interest to improve the performance of their plastic manufacturing process.
Taking the societal perspective, the guidance and recommendations laid out in the risk communication strategy and the policy and legal framework will be made openly accessible as reports containing instructive executive summaries and infographics. Again, these results are highly relevant for the public and decision makers.
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