Ecological aspects of microplastics
The pilot action Ecological Aspects of Microplastics was proposed by Germany in the Management Board of February 2013.
The accumulation of plastic litter in the environment has become a growing concern ever since the rise in plastics production. Larger persistent plastics are in most cases not degradable but fragment over the course of time. Together with the industrially produced macro plastic litter, micro-size (< 5 mm) plastics for abrasives are the primary sources. However, broken-up secondary micro-fragments of standard plastic litter (e.g. bottles, fishing-nets, bags or textiles) seem to dominate the increase of small plastic particles, so called “microplastics”, in the marine environment.
Various studies have demonstrated the ubiquitous presence of microplastics in marine habitats as well as the uptake of micro-plastics by various marine biota. Thus, microplastics are entering marine food webs and may pass to higher trophic levels ending up in human food. Furthermore, microplastics can accumulate persistent organic pollutants and may function as carriers for the dispersal of toxic or pathogenic microorganisms.
The problem of microplastics in the marine environment has been recognized by the press, public authorities and researchers worldwide. Moreover, in the EU, Member States have an obligation to monitor microplastics under the framework of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD – indicator 10.1.3). In spite of the growing public awareness with respect to the potential risks of microplastics, the various possible impacts of marine microplastics on the ecosystem have not been investigated in detail and are far from being understood. Among other things, the basis for an assessment of the environmental risks, i.e., sound data on concentrations of microplastics and the composition of involved polymers in the marine environment, e.g. water column sediment, biota, is lacking.
In an iterative process scientific experts nominated by JPI Oceans member countries together with the members of the Management Board (MB) have defined the scope of this pilot action as comprising methods, monitoring and effects of microplastics. A group of these scientists (under the lead of Heather Leslie, VU University Amsterdam) was tasked to develop a proposal to this end. Following a positive evaluation by the JPI Oceans Strategic Advisory Board, this proposal forms the basis of the action.
In particular, the proposal aims to take stock of, evaluate and improve current methods for microplastic research. Given the relatively recent emergence of microplastic research, there is a lack of harmonised and validated research methodologies for the quantification and qualification of plastic particles from selected matrices (sediment, biota and water column). The pilot action seeks to assure and control the quality of current assessment methods with the aim of developing robust and cost-effective research methods and protocols, and ultimately, comparable and validated microplastics data.
Furthermore, the pilot action aims to improve our understanding of the impacts of microplastics. While several studies have already demonstrated harmful effects of plastic particles, the (ecotoxicological) impacts on organisms, populations and ecosystems are still understudied. The action aims to explore the risks associated with plastics in the marine environment, inter alia, by further examining the mechanisms of how plastic particles are taken up and passed along the trophic chain, thus potentially entering the human food chain.
A bibliometric study conducted by JPI Oceans revealed a map of strong national research clusters connected in international and global networks in the field of marine microplastics pollution. The bibliometric study confirmed important roles of European researchers in the global networks of microplastics research, involving North- and South America, Asia and Australia. Leading institutions were mapped, and altogether the report provides a baseline setting for further monitoring of the expanding research field. A selected group of these excellent European researchers in the field were involved in scoping of the activities and proposing a research plan for the pilot action.
State of Play
During the spring of 2014, the representatives of the funding bodies of the interested countries met and agreed in principle to implement the pilot action in three steps:
- Scientific workshop: A workshop should develop a best practice guide to research methodologies, look at the development of a risk assessment framework and explore a longer-term strategy for microplastics research in JPI Oceans. This workshop which is being organised in cooperation with Ghent University.
- Interlaboratory study: funding bodies agreed to conduct an interlaboratory study in order to compare and validate research methodologies across scientific laboratories. Discussions are ongoing of how to implement such a study.
- Joint call: member countries agreed to publish a joint call focusing on microplastics in the marine environment. Based on the evaluations by an expert panel, member countries selected four proposals for funding from December 2015 for a three year period, subject to completion of national arrangements and conclusion of grant agreements:
- BASEMAN - Defining the baselines and standards for microplastics analyses in European waters
- EPHEMARE - Ecotoxicological effects of microplastics in marine ecosystems
- PLASTOX - Direct and indirect ecotoxicological impacts of microplastics on marine organisms
- WEATHER-MIC - How microplastic weathering changes its transport, fate and toxicity in the marine environment