Plastic debris in nature and society

There is increasing awareness of the potential risks plastic debris poses to the environment and public health. WIMEK’s scientists are helping to tackle this major problem. They use models and innovative detection techniques to give a better picture of where plastic debris ends up, they advise national and international organizations on the risks of plastic pollution and they develop circular production systems that prevent plastic waste.

Background

With media stories about plastic soup and concerns regarding microplastics, plastic debris is increasingly recognized as a potential threat to the environment and public health. However, this problem is not easy to resolve, in part because surprisingly little is known: it is not clear where exactly plastic debris ends up, or what risk precisely it poses to humans, animals and nature. Moreover, the solution requires an international approach as plastics are traded across borders, and plastic waste is carried by rivers and oceans. The challenge is to find ways of reducing the plastic that ends up in the environment, for example by recycling plastic waste. In all these areas, the scientists of WIMEK play a significant role.

Research objectives and approach

We have three research objectives:

  1. To better understand where plastic debris ends up and what effect it has on public health and the environment.
  2. To develop technical solutions for closing plastic production cycles.
  3. To design alternative supply chains that reduce plastic debris.

Key features of WIMEK’s research philosophy are its multidisciplinary nature, a systems analytical approach and a focus on innovative and sustainable solutions. Plastics pollution is a complex problem that requires disciplines ranging from microbiology to toxicology and marine ecology. Our researchers typically employ a systems analytical approach in which field work and lab experiments are combined with computer modelling. Innovative detection methods are developed that allow plastic particles to be detected at the low concentrations that are typical of the real-life environment.

The researchers use these models and techniques to determine what happens to plastic debris of different sizes, and to measure the exposure and risk to humans, animals and the environment. To close plastic production cycles, researchers are developing a platform for making new plastic and other products from biodegradable plastic waste. Scientists are also examining the potential for circular supply chains or the replacement of plastic with other products by exploring how production, consumption and waste differ between countries and products.

Stakeholder involvement

The relevance of WIMEK’s research is reflected in the close involvement of organizations aimed at protecting the environment and public health, such as international agencies, NGOs and national water boards. WIMEK also works with plastics manufacturers and recycling companies to make sure its scientific findings are applied in practice. Finally, WIMEK responds to the increasing public interest in the topic with media appearances and science cafes.

The chair groups include their latest research in their regular BSc and MSc courses and as a theme in case studies. The topic of plastic pollution has also attracted a number of PhD students, even though it is a relatively young field. A course on ‘Plastic in Nature and Society’ has recently been developed for PhD candidates.

Research highlights

WIMEK scientists have been able to answer some of the Big Questions in plastic pollution, attracting worldwide attention. WUR ranks second globally in terms of research output and WIMEK’s top scientists are ranked highest among plastics researchers in Clarivate’s list of highly cited researchers. Its strong performance is reflected in the funding it has secured. Two WIMEK scientists have won prestigious Veni grants while the group has obtained EU funding, industry funding and research council grants.

WIMEK’s research on methods for the detection, fate and effects of microplastics is ground-breaking. For example, they were the first to develop biomonitoring methods using fulmars, and to develop single-species bioassay methods for microplastic and nanoplastic with the use of metal doped particles. The WIMEK models to assess the relative role of microplastic as a vector for chemical uptake are widely used by other researchers. Oceanographers use WIMEK’s 1D model for the vertical distribution of microplastic in the oceans as a key element in their 3D models.

Impact

WIMEK’s scientists are recognized as experts by both policy-makers and other scientists. A sign of that respect is the appointment of a WIMEK scientist as the Editor-in-Chief of the new journal Microplastics and Nanoplastics (launched in 2020). WIMEK also plays a key role in the production of influential international reports on plastic pollution. Prof. Bart Koelmans led the expert group responsible for the report on ‘Microplastic in Nature and Society’ for the European Commission’s scientific advisors. WIMEK was also in the lead for the WHO report on ‘Microplastics in Drinking Water’ and authored the first UN Environmental Programme guidelines for plastic monitoring in freshwater ecosystems. These reports and guidelines have tangible effects on international policy.

The diversity of microplastic particles. Photo credits: Merel Kooi, Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management, Wageningen University & Research
The diversity of microplastic particles. Photo credits: Merel Kooi, Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management, Wageningen University & Research