Plastic waste

Plastic: we use it for all kinds of purposes. And when we're done with it, we throw it away. Some of the plastic waste ends up being recycled, but another part ends up in a big heap - or worse, in the environment. The plastic soup in seas and rivers is a major environmental problem. Wageningen University & Research measures the amount of plastics in oceans and rivers, traces its origin and assesses its impact on nature. We are also involved in the development of alternative materials and research how citizens' initiatives can contribute to a cleaner world.

Plastic soup detectives

One could say that the Arctic is the drainage hole for plastics coming from Europe and North America. This continuous stream of plastics coming into the Arctic not only poses a threat to wildlife but also local communities and tourists who are unwittingly exposed to this waste. Animals of all sizes, from zooplankton to polar bears can be affected by ingesting plastics or getting entangled in nets and ropes. These same items also pose a safety risk to shipping in the area due to the risk of entanglement in ship propellers.

The mission of the Arctic Marine Litter project is to find the origin, causes and solutions to plastic pollution of the Arctic.

Fulmar research: indicator of plastic waste in the sea

Northern fulmars are seabirds that spend their lives in and around the North Sea and Arctic waters. They frequently mistake small pieces of litter for food and swallow them, even though their stomachs cannot digest the waste. Therefore, dead fulmars are a good indicator of how much plastic there is in the sea. 92% of all the found fulmars have pieces of plastic in their stomachs, an average of 21 items with an average of 0.26 grams (data: May 2021).

Jan Andries van Franeker of Wageningen Marine Research is the founder of this research. The OSPAR Convention (the 'Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic') stipulates that no more than 10% of fulmars should have more than 0.1 grams of plastic in their stomachs. The European Union has now embedded the fulmar research in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and uses the methodology to monitor all European waters, including other species.

Although the amount of plastics found in fulmars' stomachs is slowly decreasing, the intended threshold is still far from being achieved. And even when the threshold value will be reached, the work of creating a truly clean marine environment will be far from over.

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River plastics

Plastic waste in rivers all over the world causes problems for people and the environment. Macroplastics (anything larger than 0.5 centimetres) in particular cause a lot of damage. The pieces contribute to the plastic soup and animals can mistake plastic for food or become entangled in it. They also cause economic damage, for example by clogging up sewer systems.

In recent years, according to Tim van Emmerik, assistant professor at the Hydrology and Quantitative Water Management chair group, the focus has mainly been on plastic at sea. "But the pollution often starts somewhere else. It is crucial that we learn more about waste in rivers, and we need a lot of data for that."

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Plastic waste: sorting and recycling

Sustainable alternatives for plastic

Citizens' initiatives for a cleaner environment

In the project 'Citizens for Biodiversity', we use scientific theories on transitions (Theory of Change) to investigate how to stimulate citizen involvement in the prevention of plastic soup in seas and oceans. For example, do beach clean-ups help to raise awareness and change policy?

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News about plastic waste

Projects about plastic waste