International conference on plastics in freshwater environments
Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks has called for a more responsible approach to plastics and plastic waste to counteract the entry of plastic litter into oceans, seas and rivers. "Every one of us uses plastic every day. Sooner or later, plastic turns into plastic waste. If this waste is not disposed of properly it can be found lying around everywhere. This is not merely an eyesore, it also harms the environment", commented Minister Hendricks at the opening of an international conference on plastics in freshwater environments.
Although the issue of plastic litter in oceans and seas has long been on the agenda of national and international environment policy debate, the issue of plastic waste in rivers has only recently come into the spotlight. 220 experts from 22 countries are taking part in the conference jointly initiated by the Federal Environment Ministry, the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) and the Federal Institute of Hydrology (BfG). Its goal is to raise awareness and increase the environmental policy focus on this issue.
Rivers are input routes of marine litter. There is not yet sufficient data available about the volume and origin of plastics in inland waters. There has also been little research to date about the impacts on humans, animals and plants in these waters. The fundamental problem is that there are no uniform standards for analysing and sampling microplastics. And without this it is not possible to assess how problematic plastics in inland waters are and which measures may be appropriate. This is why the Federal Environment Ministry is promoting various research and development projects in this field. Additionally, the German government is supporting work in the framework of the Joint Programming process by the member states and European Union.
There are several national and international studies indicating that plastics are found everywhere in inland waters - not just in rivers but in lakes too. A recent study by Basel University, for example, states that as far as microplastics are concerned, the Rhine is one of the world’s most polluted rivers. The general definition of microplastics is plastic particles that are smaller than 5 millimetres. According to the Basel University study, 25 to 30 kilogrammes of microplastics are transported by the Rhine every day. This is merely a "snapshot", which is why more long-term studies are necessary - for other rivers too.
There are a very wide range of sources of microplastics found in waters. A distinction is made between primary and secondary microplastics. Examples of primary microplastics are pellets used as the basic material for plastic production, and granules in everyday cosmetics and hygiene products such as exfoliants and hand washes. The use of such products leads to particles entering waterbodies through wastewater treatment and then into groundwater. Microfibres resulting from abrasion when washing outdoor clothing like fleece jackets, particles from car tyres and plastic surfaces on sports areas are also primary microplastics. This is known as the primary input of microplastic particles into rivers, lakes and oceans.
Secondary microplastics come from the physical, biological and chemical breakdown of macroplastic parts in the environment, for example packaging materials. It is therefore a consequence of littering, i.e. disposing of macroplastics outside of the proper waste management system.