Microplastics in oceans – how much? From where?

UBA: Focus more attention on large-size plastic litter

plastic waste in the waterClick to enlarge
Much plastic waste accumulates in the water
Source: BfG

The microplastics used in peels or shower gels contribute a comparatively little though unnecessary amount in terms of quantity to environmental pollution. These are the findings of a study done for the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), according to which some 500 tonnes of such primarily polyethylene microparticles, the most widely used plastic worldwide, are thought to be used in cosmetic products in Germany per year. The most significant source of microplastics in oceans in terms of quantity, however, is the disintegration of larger pieces of plastic. When large-size plastic litter – plastic bags, fishing nets, for example – enters oceans through rivers, wind, weather and the tides break the larger pieces down into what is known as secondary microplastics. Some six to ten percent of the plastics production worldwide lands in the world's oceans, says the study. Roughly 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year worldwide (Data: 2013). It must be assumed that up to 30 million tonnes of plastic are ending up in oceans worldwide every year. Between 3.4 and 5.7 million tonnes per year occur in Europe alone.

The study recommends to focus not only on primary microplastics but also on making must more drastic reductions in the inputs of plastics to the environment. This is the only way to effectively prevent the generation of secondary microplastics in oceans and inland waters – not only in Germany or the EU but worldwide. In the meantime, German-led global and regional action plans to combat marine litter have been adopted in the G7 process, under the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (⁠OSPAR⁠) and the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area (HELCOM). A comprehensive programme for Germany's North and Baltic Seas has been launched to implement the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC).

Some of the measures of these action plans are already being implemented, for example the Fishing-For-Litter Initiative in which fishing boats are designed to be able to store litter collected from the sea on board and then dispose of it free of charge and appropriately in harbours. All of Germany's coastal states now support and participate in the project.

Plastics are becoming an increasing threat to marine ecosystems. Plastics represent the lion's share of the litter found on Europe's beaches (75% on average). There are 663 species which are known to suffer from this litter. More than half of them ingest plastic litter or become entangled in it. Microparticles – depending on the size of the organism – can cause just as much injury to the digestive tract as larger plastic parts, thus hampering digestion or even blocking food uptake. Plastic microparticles can also act as a means of transport for pollutants, invasive species and pathogens.

In addition to polyethylene in cosmetic products, the authors of the study analysed other applications of primary microplastics. The authors estimated the quantity used for detergents and cleaning agents and blasting agents in Germany to be less than 100 tonnes per year each. Microparticles in synthetic waxes were estimated to be around 100,000 tonnes per year. These are waxlike dispersions of plastic particles that are used as abherents and for surface coatings. Other sources of secondary plastic microparticles include synthetic fibres washed out of clothing and other textiles (80-400 t/a), tyre abrasion from road traffic (60,000-111,000 t/a) and pellet loss during the production and transport of plastics (21,000-210,000 t/a).

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