Call: Sources, distribution and impact of microplastics in the marine environment

Call for proposals: Sources, distribution and impact of microplastics in the marine environment
Plastics, synthetic polymers virtually unknown prior to their broad commercialization in the 1950s, are nowadays ubiquitous in the environment, and their production continues to rise. The global production of plastics was 335 million tons in 2016 (Plastic Europe), of which 60 million tons were produced in Europe alone . Plastics are used in a wide range of applications from food packaging, to basic household items, personal care products, agriculture and industry. Other sources are the shedding of synthetic fibres from polymers (for instance, in clothing, textiles and fishing related items) and the rubber particles via roadway runoff.

Plastics in the marine environment have become a major concern because of their persistence at sea, and adverse consequences to marine life. According to estimates from Eunomia (2016) between 27—66.7 million tons of plastic can be found in the world’s ocean as of 2016.

To add to that, Lebreton et al. (2017) estimate that between 1.15 and 2.41 million tons of plastic waste currently enters the ocean every year from rivers alone whereas Jambeck et al. (2015) estimate that between 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic enter the ocean annually in total. They are not biodegradable, but undergo weathering that produce increasingly small particles termed microplastics.

In the last number of years many governmental initiatives have been launched to reduce the input of plastic into the (marine) environment. A ban on microbeads in cosmetics has come into force in many countries. Numerous other initiatives and strategies such as plastic bag levies are also emerging and taking form across the globe, including in the EU. In January 2018, the EU published its plastics strategy that aims to transform the way products are designed, produced, used, as well as recycled in the EU so that the 30% recycling rate can be increased dramatically.

However, plastic pollution of the ocean is not only a European but a global problem. The necessity to tackle the plastics issue was recognised by both the G7 and G20 countries. In particular, the groups of states acknowledge that marine litter, in particular plastic litter, poses a global challenge, directly affecting marine and coastal life and ecosystems and potentially also human health. Accordingly, increased effectiveness and intensity of work is required to reduce the input of plastic litter into the environment. Under the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development of the United Nations countries worldwide also pledge to tackle the marine litter issue. With Sustainable Development Goal 14 “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” countries have pledged to “prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution by 2025”. Better plastic management across the world can make a contribution to the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by developing sustainable consumption and production practices, improving waste prevention and recycling and preventing marine litter.

Microplastic particles are a particular aspect of the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean. Microplastics can be categorized in primary and secondary microplastics with a size smaller than 5 mm. Primary microplastics are high production volume materials applied in a large range of products as plastic granulates, powders or micro- and nano-spheres. Secondary microplastics result from the partial degradation of larger pieces of plastic litter into fragments in the micro-and possibly nano-size ranges, while decomposition is expected to take place over the course of hundreds of years. Therefore now microplastic particles are found in all oceanic gyres, bays, gulfs and seas worldwide.

Higher concentrations of microplastics were recently reported from Arctic sea ice, from the deep sea and also marine regions far away from urban areas.
The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD – 2008/56/EC) requires the maintenance or achievement of Good Environmental Status of the Seas and Oceans in order to protect marine species and habitats from human activity. The 2017 Commission Decision 2017/848/EU on the Common Understanding of the Directive replacing Decision 2010/477/EU sets out requirements to develop new criteria and methodological standards and specifications and standardised methods for monitoring and assessment. The Decision requires the development of new mandatory criteria under Descriptor 10 for litter and micro litter in the environment and the impact of the litter on marine species through ingestion and entanglement. This work must be linked to the development of other criteria, threshold values and methodologies for other descriptors for marine biological diversity, seafloor integrity and contaminants in sea food and requires a transdisciplinary European research initiative. Although micro-plastic particles can be reliably quantified and identified by using spectroscopic techniques (e.g. FTIR, Raman) from a particle size of >10 μm. Pyrolysis-gaschromatography (GC) in combination with mass spectrometry (MS) can be used to assess the chemical composition (polymer type) and a quantitative analysis of micro-plastics of entire environmental samples. But the preparation of the samples and the spectroscopic measurements can take a long time. Marine environment managers involved in MSFD and Regional Seas Conventions work on marine litter and its impacts require cost effective, timely and standardised methodologies for sampling, analysis and assessments for European monitoringprograms. The development of new methodologies is necessary for standard operation protocols (SOP) for marine micro litter including microplastics.

In the joint transnational call “Ecological aspects of microplastics in the marine environment”, launched under the framework of JPI Oceans, four projects were selected for funding from January 2016 for a three year period. The project BASEMAN is focused on first steps for defining environmental baselines, as well as the development of measurement methods and standards for microplastics analyses in European waters - especially for the particle fraction higher than 300 μm. EPHEMARE studies biological effects of marine pollutants at molecular, cellular, physiological and organismic levels through the implementation of several experiments in partner laboratories, to allow for detection of effects of microplastics across the main phyla of marine organisms from bacteria to fish covering most of the trophic levels. PLASTOX investigates the ingestion, food-web transfer, and ecotoxicological impact of microplastics, together with the persistent organic pollutants metals and plastic additive chemicals associated with them, on key European marine species and ecosystems. WEATHER-MIC assesses how microplastic weathering changes its transport, fate and toxicity in the marine environment. In the oceans, microplastic particles are exposed to factors including UV light, physical stress and biofilm growth on their surface.

Through these research projects the knowledge about the analysis, weathering and, ecotoxicological effects of microplastics in the marine environment has been substantially improved. But not all relevant questions have been addressed in the four projects and the knowledge and understanding about smaller microplastic particles (from 10 μm to very small particles - nanoparticles) is in particular limited.

One new aspect that just recently started to be addressed is the use of satellite images to directly or indirectly observe and reduce uncertainty of the numerical models for identifying and quantifying the sources, distribution patterns and sinks of plastics and microplastics in the ocean and in the shorelines. Significant progress has been made on remote sensing technologies and some encouraging new results have been presented and discussed to advance the global detection of floating marine debris and its relationship with microplastics global mapping. But still several relevant questions have not been addressed.

Following on from the success and findings of the four projects funded under the first joint transnational call of the JPI Oceans microplastic initiative, several funding partners decided to announce a second funding opportunity to submit joint international proposals. In view of the global nature of the challenge, JPI Oceans is explicitly inviting other international partners to join this initiative. Thereby JPI Oceans is aiming to promote transatlantic and global cooperation on the issue, and contribute to the Regional Seas Conventions, to the implementation of the Belém Statement as well as G7, G20 and UN aims of reducing (micro-) plastic pollution in the ocean.

JPI Oceans is an intergovernmental strategic process that focuses on solving the societal challenges related to our seas and oceans that cannot be solved solely on the national level. In JPI Oceans national ministries and agencies responsible for research funding seek to define common long-term strategic priorities for marine and maritime research and technology development as a basis for strengthening cooperation and coordination of national investments in these fields.

Scientific Framework

Building on the results from the joint transnational call “Ecological aspects of microplastics in the marine environment” and recent scientific findings this joint transnational call intends to increase the knowledge about the relevant sources of microplastics, analytical methods for identifying smaller micro- and (nano-)plastics, monitoring their distribution and abundance in marine systems and their effects thereon as well as concepts to reduce inputs of plastic into the marine environment. This call comprises four main themes:

  • Identification, characterisation and quantification of the major microplastic sources, especially mechanisms and time scales of macroplastic fragmentation
  • New sampling and analytical methodologies - focusing on the smaller (nano-)particles and in situ measurement methods for all matrices (water, sediment, biota)
  • Monitoring and mapping of microplastics in the marine environment including its effects on the marine environment
  • Concepts to reduce inputs of plastics into the marine environment including through new recycling methods, raising public awareness, promoting behavioural change, socio-economic analyses

For further information, please see https://epss-jpi-oceans.ptj.de/Call2018.