News 2017-06-22

“Reports about harmful effects of microplastic have opened many people’s eyes”

The first UN Ocean Conference, hosted by Sweden and Fiji, took place in New York. Issues with microplastic in the sea and marine littering were high on the agenda. These questions were also taken up in Sweden, where the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency delivered a report commissioned by the Swedish government on the sources of microplastic and proposed measures for reducing emissions in Sweden.

Kerstin Magnusson is an ecotoxicologist at IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute and co-author of the IVL report on the sources of microplastic in the seas, which forms part of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency's proposal.

How significant has recent research and the focus on plastic debris and microplastic been?

– Up until now, received wisdom held that plastic debris in any form was primarily an aesthetic concern. However, recent research has led us to realize that the problem is far more serious. The plastic waste littering our oceans – regardless of whether it is big or microscopic – has a harmful effect on marine ecosystems in one way or another. We have a better idea of the wide range of activities that can give rise to microplastic, besides plastic debris. There is tire wear, work with plastic materials in the construction industry, granules from artificial turf, and much more. I have the impression that reports about the impact of microplastic on the environment have been something of an eye-opener for many people.

– Even though the attention paid to the report by the media is positive, it is a pity that so much emphasis has been placed on the report’s ranking of the various activities that give rise to microplastic. Although road traffic is the largest single measurable source of microplastic, many other sources are also extremely important. For example, plastic waste that breaks down into microplastic – there is no doubt that this is a major source, but as it is impossible to quantify it has attracted less attention than it deserves.

– Greywater is a significant transportation route, and when it comes to limiting the diffusion of microplastic in the sea the purification systems designed to separate out microplastic from greywater are pivotal to reducing stress on the aquatic environment.

What direction do you think research in this area will take in the future?

There is currently a lot of valuable research being carried out on the occurrence, diffusion and effects of microplastic. I would like to see a more solution-oriented approach, for example, a global effort to make waste management more effective. Here, Sweden, which is ahead of the field, could become leading in exporting expertise and technical solutions. These initiatives could range from efficiently sorting household waste to the design of recycling stations and the treatment of water and sewage.

For more information, please contact:
Kerstin Magnusson, kerstin.magnusson@ivl.se, +46 (0)10-788 69 07