New Research Project „PlastX“: How to Sustainably Deal With Plastic?

Plastic is part of our daily lives. It can be used in various way, it is robust and cheap to produce. But plastic is mainly made from mineral oil and as a waste product it pollutes the environment. Which role does this ambivalent material play within society and what are its environmental impacts? The junior research group “PlastX” which is funded by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) investigates how it may be possible to sustainably deal with plastic. 

Several millions of tons of plastic waste are floating across the oceans and are washed ashore. The minute particles of plastic debris are fatal for countless marine animals and sea birds also because they are partly mistaken for food. Plastic leaves a lot of traces in the environment which due to the lengthy process of degradation will stay there for hundreds of years to come. This is the downside of the exceedingly practical material that has revolutionized large areas of our daily lives due to its multifaceted characteristics and broad fields of application.

Synthetic materials will continue to play an important role. Their innovation potential is considerable and promises progress – be it in the medical field, in communication technology or for automobile and vehicle construction. But in future, how can the ecological consequences be avoided that arise from production, use and disposal of plastic materials? Are there any alternatives to plastic or to the way society is dealing with it? The team of the junior research group PlastX is developing strategies on this subject with a focus on alternatives to plastic, avoiding plastic, and management.

Interlaced and global risks: Plastic stands for complex social-ecological processes

Interlaced, global risks are characteristic for the complex problems caused by plastic. “Societal actors from various constellations are part of this interlinkage”, says Johanna Kramm, one of the two project leaders. “These actors can be responsible for causing the risks or can be parties affected.” “Due to the inter -and transdisciplinary approach we are following in PlastX it is possible to view the issue from different perspectives and independently of single problem carriers”.

Johanna Kramm, human geographer and Carolin Völker, ecotoxicologist are from ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research and are together leading the junior research group. Other participants of the joint project are the department of aquatic ecotoxicology at the Goethe University Frankfurt and the Max-Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz. As a junior research group, PlastX pursues the goal of training young scientists in inter- and transdisciplinary research.

Solutions by means of inter- and transdisciplinary research

“Plastic causes social-ecological problems which offer themselves for solutions through the cooperation of various scientific disciplines”, says Carolin Völker. But this approach is difficult to implement in practice. “We deliberately accept this challenge and are for this purpose using ISOE’s methods and concepts for inter- and transdisciplinary work”, says Völker.

In the next five years, postgraduate students of biology, chemistry, geography, and sociology will work together in the research group PlastX. Following the life cycle of plastic they will focus on the task fields packaging and consumption, risk assessment of microplastics in rivers and finally management strategies for plastic waste in oceans.

About the project

The junior research group “PlastX – Plastics as a systemic risk for social-ecological supply systems” is funded by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) as part of the program “Research for Sustainable Development (FONA). Here, PlastX is part of the funding measure “SÖF – Social-Ecological Research” in the funding area “Junior research groups in the field of Social-ecological research.”
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