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When we press the start button on our washing machines, most of us are not even aware that we are setting a process in motion that will end with plastics getting into our waste water. Many fabrics these days are made partly or entirely of artificial fibres. A fleece for example can shed hundreds of microscopic plastic fibres in the washing machine. Plastic particles can also end up in waste water as a result of cosmetic products such as exfoliants, or shower gels that contain polyethylene. Many other synthetic particles also find their way into the environment when disposable bottles or plastic bags are thoughtlessly discarded and slowly degrade.
Many questions still unanswered
Research funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is aimed at assessing the scale of environmental pollution brought about by plastics worldwide and at identifying its causes and consequences. 18 joint research projects involving around 100 partners from science, business, associations and municipalities are keen to obtain a comprehensive picture of how plastics are produced, used, traded and disposed of. Despite global research, there are still many gaps in our knowledge about plastics in the environment.
For example when it comes to the risks they pose to humans: plastics can end up in inland waters and the seas in the form of microparticles. They are then ingested by mussels and prawns and thereby find their way into the human food chain. It is not yet known whether these substances are harmful.
From our roads into our waters
One of the projects exploring how plastic ends up in our waters is the research project "Tyre Debris in the Environment" (only in German) coordinated by Technische Universität Berlin. In Germany alone, it is estimated that up to 100,000 tons of tyre debris are generated each year. Most of this gets washed from our roads into our waters by the rain. "We will describe in detail the path taken by the tyre particles, and will also track their entire life cycle", explains Daniel Venghaus, a research associate at TU Berlin. The project aims to find out how and in which quantities the rubber material from vehicle tyres ends up in rivers, lakes and seas, and then to illustrate ways of reducing the total.
New fabrics for clothing
The goal of another project is to ensure that fewer synthetic textile fibres wind up in waste water when clothes are washed. Eight organisations from industry, research and environmental protection are partners in the "TextileMission" project (only in German). A team at Hochschule Niederrhein, University of Applied Sciences, intends to develop materials that release as few microplastics as possible. To this end, researchers are working with partners from the chemical industry and washing machine manufacturers. Experts in waste water technology at Technische Universität Dresden will explore how microorganisms can break down the tiny fibres. Researchers in another project will focus on innovative methods of analysis. In this context, Technical University of Munich (TUM) and six partners will be working on analytical processes – among other things – to measure microplastics. Furthermore, they plan to explore how the particles affect microorganisms, marine animals and human health.
Plastic in the environment
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is making 35 million euros of funding available for the "Plastic in the Environment" project. This makes the joint project one of the world’s largest research programmes devoted to plastic. The projects will run until 2021. The first results are expected in the second half of 2018.www.fona.de > Project "Plastics in the Environment" (only in German)
Research in Germany Press Tour 2017: Seas and Oceans
Seas and oceans and the human impact on them: the "Research in Germany" press tour 2017 also focused on this topic and set out to show what marine researchers in Germany are working on. Learn more about the themes that were covered and the researchers who were visited, and check out the stories the participating journalists have published in this rich-media presentation.www.pageflow.daad.com > "Research in Germany" Press Tour 2017