My project has received funding from the European Union’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon 2020 under the Marie Curie Individual Fellowship.

Project overview

Plastics are one of the most prevalent of modern chemical wonders. The creation of new synthetic chemicals combined with the engineering capabilities of mass production has made plastics one of the most popular materials in modern times. There is no doubt that the successful application of plastic materials has helped to deliver improved quality of life. However, littered plastic is one of the most ubiquitous and conspicuous environmental pollution problems and is present in one form or another globally. In addition to the obvious aesthetic impacts of littering, environmental plastics can have detrimental consequences for biota and environmental degradation [1]. The effects to organisms through entanglement and ingestion have been studied extensively [2]. However, as plastic waste abrades and disintegrates it forms tiny particles, commonly termed ‘microplastics’, that are more readily bioavailable [3]. There is increasing recognition that microplastics are presenting a significant environmental pollution issue that is impacting environmental quality and aquatic food sources, which in turn impacts whole ecosystem and human health [4]. Microplastics are also known to effectively sorb organic pollutants from surrounding water [5]. Therefore, internalized microplastics might not only lead to direct physical injury, but also to a chemical poisoning of the organism through the ingestion of pollutant loaded microplastics [6] (Fig. 1). The International Maritime Organization very recently (July 2013) established a dedicated working group on microplastics under the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP WG 40). Results from a previous workshop have highlighted that “One of the greatest uncertainties is whether this leads to the bioaccumulation of the contaminant load (absorbed and plastic additives), and hence whether micro-plastics represent an additional and significant vector for transferring pollutants”; the conclusion was that this will remain unresolved until the results of additional studies and data collations are available [7]

Current investigations into the ecotoxicological effects of microplastics have exclusively focused on the marine environment and scientific knowledge on the effects of microplastics in freshwater ecosystems is lacking [8]. EU member states are currently implementing the environmental goals specified by the Water Framework Directive. The protection goals underlying the Water Framework Directive refer to human and ecosystem health; within this context of ecosystem health, environmental quality standard settings assume that ecosystem sensitivity depends on the most sensitive species. Therefore, it will be important to understand the impacts of microplastics as emerging freshwater pollutants if the protection goals are to be truly met. In this context, the overall aim of this proposal is to investigate and assess the environmental impacts of microplastics in freshwater systems. The proposed project will address the major concerns regarding their environmental persistence, their biological effects, and their effects in the presences of co-occurring freshwater contaminants towards key aquatic organisms.                                                                            

[1] Lambert et al., (2014) Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 27: 1-53.

[2] Gregory, (2009) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (1526): 2013-2025.

[3] See footnote 1.

[4] UNEP (2011) UNEP Year Book 2011

[5] Besseling et al., (2013). Environmental Science and Technology. 47: 593-600.                                                                               

[6] Rochman, (2013) Environmental Science and Technology. 47: 2439-2440.                                                                                    

[7] Bowmer  & Kershaw, (2010) Eds. Proceedings of the GESAMP International Workshop on plastic particles as a vector in transporting persistent, bio-accumulating and toxic substances in the oceans. GESAMP Rep. Stud. No. 82, 68pp.

[8] Wagner et al., (2014) Environmental Sciences Europe. 26 (12).    

Also see the following open assess article by Wagner et al., (2014) published in Environmental Sciences Europe:

Microplastics in freshwater ecosystems: what we know and what we need to know


Background: While the use of plastic materials has generated huge societal benefits, the ‘plastic age’ comes with downsides: One issue of emerging concern is the accumulation of plastics in the aquatic environment. Here, so-called microplastics (MP), fragments smaller than 5 mm, are of special concern because they can be ingested throughout the food web more readily than larger particles. Focusing on freshwater MP, we briefly review the state of the science to identify gaps of knowledge and deduce research needs.

State of the science: Environmental scientists started investigating marine (micro)plastics in the early 2000s. Today, a wealth of studies demonstrates that MP have ubiquitously permeated the marine ecosystem, including the polar regions and the deep sea. MP ingestion has been documented for an increasing number of marine species. However, to date, only few studies investigate their biological effects. The majority of marine plastics are considered to originate from land-based sources, including surface waters. Although they may be important transport pathways of MP, data from freshwater ecosystems is scarce. So far, only few studies provide evidence for the presence of MP in rivers and lakes. Data on MP uptake by freshwater invertebrates and fish is very limited.

Knowledge gaps: While the research on marine MP is more advanced, there are immense gaps of knowledge regarding freshwater MP. Data on their abundance is fragmentary for large and absent for small surface waters. Likewise, relevant sources and the environmental fate remain to be investigated. Data on the biological effects of MP in freshwater species is completely lacking. The accumulation of other freshwater contaminants on MP is of special interest because ingestion might increase the chemical exposure. Again, data is unavailable on this important issue.

Conclusions: MP represent freshwater contaminants of emerging concern. However, to assess the environmental risk associated with MP, comprehensive data on their abundance, fate, sources, and biological effects in freshwater ecosystems are needed. Establishing such data critically depends on a collaborative effort by environmental scientists from diverse disciplines (chemistry, hydrology, ecotoxicology, etc.) and, unsurprisingly, on the allocation of sufficient public funding.

The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at: