Environmental impact of micro-plastics present in marine litter: assessment and recommendations for a strategy

Highlights selected by GreenFacts from the executive summary of a report by GESAMP (2010) of microplastics in the marine environment and of the JRC report (2011) on Technical Recommendations for the Implementation to marine litter of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive requirements                                                                                                              (An update of the Highlight edition of Dec, 2010)                                                                       

In short: The question raised by the GESAMP is whether the micro-plastic could contribute to the bioaccumulation of toxic contaminants in marine life. Recent studies seem to reveal no increase in the concentration of these contaminants in areas of accumulation of plastic in the oceans and the solutions lie primarily in the management of waste on land and at sea.

Moreover, a technical subgroup under the Working Group on GES in relation to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008/56/EC investigated the monitoring approaches for marine litter and provides a set of monitoring tools which can be employed for that purpose.

 1. The report on th GESAMP symposium


1.1. evaluation of the environmental impact of plastic litter and micro-plastics

 It is well documented that plastic litter causes physical harm to marine mammals, fish and invertebrates and instances of death by entanglement, asphyxiation or blockage of organs are common. It is also known that plastic particles tend to accumulate persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic contaminants such as PCBs, DDT and PBDEs. 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.

A definite cause for concern is that particles, including microplastics have recently been found in the circulatory systems and other tissues of filter feeding organisms such as the blue mussels following experimental exposure and caused typical inflammatory responses.

1. 2. The sources of plastic litter in the marine environment

 There are two principle sources of micro-plastic particles in the marine environment : i) plastic resin pellets either used in the plastics manufacturing process or purposefully fabricated as abrasives for shot blasting or in cosmetic facial scrubs; and ii) plastic fragments arising from the structural deterioration and disintegration of plastic objects, mainly litter, which can include packaging, articles of clothing, household items such as toothbrushes and razors as well as building materials, lost or discarded fishing and aquaculture gear, amongst many others.

Given the rise in global plastics production year on year (245 million metric tonnes in 2008), it can be concluded that the input of marine plastic litter, and thereby micro-plastics, will increase in those rapidly developing regions of the world lacking adequate solid waste management practices.

Knowledge of the distribution and fate of micro-plastics is only beginning to emerge. Some recent studies have revealed no significant trend in the concentration of particles in nearsurface waters in areas of mid-ocean accumulation (N Pacific and NW Atlantic gyres). In some cases, this may well be due to improvements in sea- or land-based waste management. However, the characteristics and behaviour of the plastic particles may also have a role to play in determining the quantities we are able to sample and measure. For much of the oceans we have little or no information on trends, either at the macro or micro level.

1.3. The recommendations made by the workshop participants

 The Workshop recommended that a global assessment of micro-plastics in the context of the marine litter problem as a whole should be initiated under the leadership of GESAMP and with the cooperation of the UN Agencies, Regional and National Administrations, IGO’s and NGO’s.

The diversity of methodologies for microplastics quantification presently employed requires further standardization in order to ensure data comparability in particular focused on providing estimates of plastics inputs to the oceans. It should also aim to provide a definitive answer to the scale of the impact both physically and chemically on marine organisms and the potential for impacts on human health from the consumption of these.

The workshop participants felt that a major effort is required to control plastics in the marine environment and that the issue of micro-plastics and their potential effects in the global oceans is still emerging; much of the process remains to be discovered. The problems are complex and require a truly multidisciplinary science and engineering approach.

Their conclusion was that the problem of micro-plastics stems clearly from plastic waste entering the oceans and the ultimate solutions are to be found in improved solid waste management on land and at sea; they require the participation of all sectors (politicians, the plastics and retail industry, science, education and the general public).

2.. Technical Recommendations established in 2011 by a JRC Group for the Implementation to marine litter of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive requirements 


As stated in the abstract of the report available on the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the EU Commission website,  in the frame of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD),  in 2010 the Directorate General Environment established a technical subgroup within the Working Group on Good Environmental Practices (GES) for further development of the Descriptor 10 related to Marine Litter.  The group has investigated the monitoring approaches for marine litter and provides a set of recommendations on monitoring tools which can be employed for that purpose.There are gaps in the regional applicability and differences in the maturity of some tools. There is also need for further harmonization and collaborative activities in order to allow EU Member States the future reporting of environmental trends and thus the verification of measures against marine litter.

See also the  Report of the EU Commission Workshop “Marine Litter: Plastic Soup and More”, held in  November 2010 http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/marine/pdf/report_workshop_litter.pdf 

3. About the GESAMP symposium

The workshop was held at UNESCO-IOC in Paris end June 2010 as part of GESAMP’s remit to advise its sponsoring agencies (IMO, FAO, UNESCO-IOC, UNIDO, WMO, IAEA, UN, UNEP, and UNDP) on new and emerging issuesin relation to the state of the marine environment. The invited participants represented the scientific community, the plastics industry, policy makers and environmental NGOs, as well as regional bodies and developing as well as developed countries.

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


4.  About the JRC report  

Contact information :  Georg Hanke, JRC IES, Via E. Fermi 2749, I-21027 Ispra (VA),Italy georg.hanke@jrc.ec.europa.eu

5. The Directive-Framework of Marine Strategy  



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