Plastic should not be found in the environment. In order to estimate for the first time the exact extent of plastic pollution in Switzerland, the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) has mandated Empa researchers to calculate how much plastic gets into the environment. Empa has analyzed the seven most frequently used types of plastic. According to the study, more than 5000 tons of plastic are discharged into the environment every year. The results show that the plastic load on and in soils is much greater than in waters. Other plastics, in particular rubber, which is released into the environment from tire abrasion, were not part of the study.
The Empa study focused on specific types of plastic: polyethylene (LD-PE and HD-PE), polypropylene, polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, PVC and PET used for example in packaging, textiles, insulation materials and agricultural films.
The researchers followed the path of these plastics to the Swiss environment from production through use to disposal and developed a model, with which these material flows can be calculated. They distinguish between microplastics (smaller than 5 millimeters) and macroplastics (larger than 5 millimeters).
Overall, around 5,120 tons of the seven types of plastic are discharged into the environment each year. This is around 0.7% of the total amount of the seven plastics consumed in Switzerland each year (amounting to a total of around 710,000 tons). According to Empa's modelling, around 4,400 tons of macroplastic are deposited on soils every year.
In addition, about 100 tons of macroplastic are emitted to waters. 600 tons of microplastics end up in or on soils and about 15 tons in waters. The amount of microplastics is thus much smaller than that of macroplastics; in contrast, the number of microplastic particles that could have an impact on organisms is much larger.
For an overall picture of plastic pollution in Switzerland, however, tire abrasion should also be taken into account. Several studies have identified this material as the largest source of microplastics. A current study at Empa will provide further information on this source of plastic pollution.
40-times more plastic in soils than in waters
The investigation of the seven types of plastic shows that the amount of plastic that gets into the soil is about 40-times higher than the amount that is discharged into water bodies. The main reason for this is littering – the careless throwing away of waste –, which pollutes in particular soils, but also waters, with macroplastics.
The cleaning of public spaces allows the collection of a large part of this plastic. Nevertheless, part of it remains lying around. Another significant source of macroplastic in soils is the use of plastic films in agriculture. Macroplastic also reaches the soils through the composting of organic waste that contains plastic.
The most important sources of microplastics in soils are agriculture and the construction industry, for example through the wear and tear of foils and pipes and the installation and dismantling of insulation on houses. To a lesser extent, waste disposal also contributes to microplastic pollution by shredding plastic waste for recycling.
The main sources of microplastics in waters are the washing and wearing of synthetic fiber clothing as well as cosmetics. Measured against the modelled soil contamination, however, these sources appear low.
In addition, efficient wastewater treatment plants filter a large part of microplastic out of the wastewater. A recent Empa study has shown that currently microplastics pose no threat to aquatic organisms in Europe.
Research projects and measures for the future
Empa's calculations make it possible to identify future areas of research and action. In particular, the plastic contamination of soils should be investigated more thoroughly.
Depending on the type of plastic used, there are various options for action: Consumers must be made even more aware of the fact that disposable packaging should be disposed of as waste.
Improved cleaning measures, for example along roads, prevent the pollution of the environment with discarded waste. In agriculture, the input of plastics into the soil must be reduced. In the waste and construction industries, companies should be made aware of the issue of plastic pollution.
At the political level, several initiatives are calling for measures to be taken in the field of plastics. The FOEN is currently considering further steps to reduce the environmental impact of plastics.
Prof. Dr. Bernd Nowack, Empa, Technologie und Gesellschaft, Tel. +41 58 765 76 92, Bernd.Nowack@empa.ch
Dr. Michael Hagmann, Empa, Kommunikation, Tel. +41 58 765 45 92, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bundesamt für Umwelt (BAFU), Sektion Medien, Tel. +41 58 462 90 00, email@example.com
D Kawecki, B Nowack; Polymer-Specific Modeling of the Environmental Emissions of Seven Commodity Plastics As Macro- and Microplastics; Environ Sci Technol (2019); doi: 10.1021/acs.est.9b02900
Michael Hagmann | Empa - Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt
Lights on fishing nets save turtles and dolphins
05.12.2019 | University of Exeter
For some corals, meals can come with a side of microplastics
04.12.2019 | University of Washington
With ultracold chemistry, researchers get a first look at exactly what happens during a chemical reaction
The coldest chemical reaction in the known universe took place in what appears to be a chaotic mess of lasers. The appearance deceives: Deep within that...
Abnormal scarring is a serious threat resulting in non-healing chronic wounds or fibrosis. Scars form when fibroblasts, a type of cell of connective tissue, reach wounded skin and deposit plugs of extracellular matrix. Until today, the question about the exact anatomical origin of these fibroblasts has not been answered. In order to find potential ways of influencing the scarring process, the team of Dr. Yuval Rinkevich, Group Leader for Regenerative Biology at the Institute of Lung Biology and Disease at Helmholtz Zentrum München, aimed to finally find an answer. As it was already known that all scars derive from a fibroblast lineage expressing the Engrailed-1 gene - a lineage not only present in skin, but also in fascia - the researchers intentionally tried to understand whether or not fascia might be the origin of fibroblasts.
Fibroblasts kit - ready to heal wounds
Research from a leading international expert on the health of the Great Lakes suggests that the growing intensity and scale of pollution from plastics poses serious risks to human health and will continue to have profound consequences on the ecosystem.
In an article published this month in the Journal of Waste Resources and Recycling, Gail Krantzberg, a professor in the Booth School of Engineering Practice...
Conventional light microscopes cannot distinguish structures when they are separated by a distance smaller than, roughly, the wavelength of light. Superresolution microscopy, developed since the 1980s, lifts this limitation, using fluorescent moieties. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research have now discovered that graphene nano-molecules can be used to improve this microscopy technique. These graphene nano-molecules offer a number of substantial advantages over the materials previously used, making superresolution microscopy even more versatile.
Microscopy is an important investigation method, in physics, biology, medicine, and many other sciences. However, it has one disadvantage: its resolution is...
03.12.2019 | Event News
15.11.2019 | Event News
15.11.2019 | Event News
05.12.2019 | Life Sciences
05.12.2019 | Life Sciences
05.12.2019 | Materials Sciences