The seas swallow everything human beings produce, consume and throw away. The world's oceans are filling up with rubbish and the limits of ecological self-cleaning have long been exceeded.
Plastic waste, which accounts for up to 90 percent of the rubbish in the oceans and on the beaches, is a threat to marine flora and fauna. Everyone has seen the pictures of plastic islands in the sea, dead sea animals caught up in abandoned fishing nets or marine birds that mistake plastic particles for food.
The problems do not end with the visible rubbish tips in the seas, however. Larger pieces of plastic are broken down into smaller fragments by UV radiation and the action of waves; if they measure less than 5 mm they are referred to as microplastics. It takes hundreds of years for them to fully disintegrate. Such microparticles are used in the cosmetics industry which adds them to many creams and shower gels. The washing of synthetic fleece clothing and the everyday wear and tear on vehicle tyres which are then washed into the drains are other causes of microplastics ending up in the seas.
Concerted efforts and the drawing up of international guidelines are needed in order to be able to continue to exploit the oceans sustainably. The basis for these guidelines will be provided by intensified research because we still know too little about the impacts of microplastics on marine ecosystems. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is launching a pilot measure concerned with Microplastics in Marine Systems together with eleven other research funding organizations from nine European countries under the framework of the European Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans Joint Programming Initiative (JPI Oceans).
The aim is to develop a standardized measurement methodology to provide the analytical bases for comparable scientific studies as well as for monitoring. A further aim is to find out how particles spread in the marine environment and what toxicological effects they have on marine organisms. To start with, 7 million euros will be provided on an international basis. The results from the funded projects will form a key contribution to a joint plan of action of the countries involved in this field.