Microplastics in the environment and the food chain

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Authors: Gábor Bordós, Reiber, Jens

1. Summary

Plastics are used, due to their excellent properties, as materials in a growing number of applications.
Recently, the subject of microplastics in the environment and the food chain has been discussed extensively. Several studies show the magnitude of the pollution of microplastics in sewage treatment plants, waters (rivers and lakes), oceans and shore sections, as well as fishes, mussels and invertebrates.
Plastics decompose under the influence of various environmental factors. Generally, plastic particles with a size of less than five millimeters are referred to as microplastic particles.

This article gives an overview of the term “microplastics”. It describes the definition, occurrences, sources and analytical testing approaches in general, and at WESSLING in particular. Also, additional investigations that are required to develop validated methods for sampling and analysis are discussed, after clarification of the potential risk to various organisms.

2. Introduction

Global plastic production is still growing, reaching 311 million tons in 2014. In Europe, it seems to be stable over the last ten years, with an amount of around 60 million tons annually. 39.5% of these plastics are used for packaging and as these are single-use products (that will turn into trash in the same year), this sector alone generates around 24 million tons of plastic waste in Europe each year. In total, 25.8 million tons of post-consumer plastic waste was reported and treated in 2014 in the EU (8 million tons were landfilled, 7.7 million tons were recycled and 10.1 million tons were recovered) [1] which is only a little bit higher than the 24 M tons yearly packaging material production.

Other plastic markets (e.g. automotive, building & construction, electric & electronic equipments) could contribute to the reported waste quantity, even though short-term obsolescence is not general here, but used products from previous years will continuously appear in the waste stream (and presumably with values much higher than 1.8 M tons per year). This gap between production and waste data confirms that remarkable amounts of plastic waste end up in the environment. Supposedly, the primary source of plastic waste is the littering of packaging material.

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