Plastics in the environment are a global problem and the evidence for this is hard to miss: huge waste deposits are seen in the oceans even in remote areas of the Arctic, plastic particles are found in the stomachs of fish and seabirds, and plastics of all sizes and shapes are clearly visible on almost any beach around the world.
Despite a range of activities and approaches, our knowledge of the full extent of plastic pollution is still limited: there is not enough validated knowledge on the origins of plastics in the ocean, their behaviour in oceans, inland waters and soils, and how they could affect animals and humans.
Germany’s Federal Ministry for Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung – BMBF) addresses this issue with its current research focus, an initiative called “Plastics in the Environment – Sources • Sinks • Solutions”. The BMBF is thus supporting the transition to a resource and environmentally friendly economy, which is at the heart of the flagship initiative Green Economy within the BMBF-framework programme ”Research for Sustainable Development” (FONA³). With this research focus, the BMBF expands on work conducted in previous funding measures, e.g.: the international funding programme investigating microplastics in the oceans (part of JPI OCEANS), the ongoing joint research project “Microplastics in the water cycle” (MiWa) (part of the funding priority Sustainable Water Management), as well as the Social-ecological Junior Research Group PlastX working in this area.
The interdisciplinary nature of the research focus will enable a better understanding of the environmental impacts of plastic waste from river basins all the way to the oceans. The aim of the research is a first and comprehensive scientific assessment of the problem of plastic waste and to fill in existing knowledge gaps. In addition, solutions for reducing the emission of plastics into the environment are identified and implemented. For this purpose, the entire value chain of plastics, from production and use to disposal, is examined in order to identify opportunities for improvement and options for action, especially in an international context.
In the period of 2017–2021, a total of 20 joint research projects and an accompanying scientific project will be funded with around €37 million. More than 100 institutions from science, industry, civil society, and public administration are involved in what is currently the world‘s largest research focus in the field of the effects of plastic on the environment.
This general outline of the research projects shows how diverse and far-reaching the impacts of the plastic problem are and the variety of areas in research, business and society that are affected.
In order to address the various aspects in a targeted manner, approaches are needed in which research institutions cooperate with actors from business, civil society and administration. Following that, other departments and federal authorities can also be supported in developing strategies and measures for a more sustainable use of plastics. To promote the knowledge exchange and networking between the projects as well as to support the use and communication of research results, the accompanying project PlastikNet was established. Furthermore, a Steering Committee and an Advisory Board are involved in the implementation of the research focus.
The Steering Committee serves the networking between the joint research projects as well as the discussion of general questions. Cross-cutting issues are defined, at which all interested joint research projects work together in the course of the research focus, e.g. in workshops. The six preliminary cross-cutting issues are:
In addition, joint activities are planned for the use and practical implementation of the project results and for public relations work. The Steering Committee is composed of the coordinators of all 20 joint research projects. Representatives of the BMBF, the project management agency and PlastikNet also take part in the semi-annual meetings.
The Advisory Board is organised under the leadership of the BMBF and includes important actors from the federal government, state governments, local authorities, industry, associations and civil society. The task of the Advisory Board is to link scientists from the research focus with stakeholders from industry, politics, society and administration as well as to disseminate the results. The Board thus serves on the one hand to multiply the results, i.e. transfer them to relevant institutions and political processes, and on the other hand, to inform the research projects with developments from practice.