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Marine Science



New collaboration addresses marine plastic pollution. The Technical University of Denmark (DTU) is co-operating with four other research institutions to investigate the impact of plastic in the ocean and the need for new legislation

Plastics in the ocean is one of today’s fastest growing environmental problems. Up to 80% of the world’s waste consists of plastic, and 300 million tons of plastic are discharged to the ocean every year.

Researchers from five Danish research institutions, including DTU, are now collaborating to develop knowledge about and solutions to marine plastic pollution. The collaboration takes place within the frame of the MarinePlastic research centre, headed by Aalborg University and supported by the Velux Foundation with 20 million DKK.

From DTU, DTU Aqua and DTU Environment participate in the MarinePlastic Research Centre. The two institutes will investigate microplastics in zooplankton, mussels and fish.

“It can have major consequences for the entire ecosystem if microplastics affect zooplankton negatively, as plankton forms the basis of the marine food webs and is an important food source for many fish, birds and marine mammals. At the same time, many people are worried about microplastics in seafood, in particular whether it is a problem for their health,” says Professor Torkel Gissel Nielsen, DTU Aqua, on the background of the studies he is conducting in collaboration with Senior Researcher Nanna B. Hartmann from DTU Environment.

In order to assess the impact of microplastics on humans and the environment, DTU researchers will investigate under what circumstances zooplankton, mussels and fish ingest microplastics and what happens when they do. For instance, microplastic size, composition and age may determine if microplastics are eaten or rejected by the organisms, and if it enters the food web.

Previous studies are based on laboratory tests with microplastic concentrations far above the level found in the sea, but DTU researchers will include environmentally realistic concentrations of plastic in their experiments and supplement with studies on the distribution of microplastics in the ocean. In addition, the researchers will coat the experimental microplastics with a biofilm, as seen in nature, to test whether this will increase the organism’s appetite for microplastics.

The MarinePlastic Research Centre has a declared goal of developing proposals and solutions to plastic pollution in collaboration with stakeholders and policy makers. This includes, among other things, an analysis of which kinds of scientific information are needed to meet current regulatory requirements and an analysis of whether the knowledge-base that current regulation rely on contains the most relevant and best available information. DTU Environment is responsible for this part of the project in collaboration with Roskilde University.

“In the project we will act as knowledge brokers between researchers and other stakeholders, e.g., authorities, industry and NGOs, so that research results can be transferred into action. Perhaps society needs answers to key issues that we can pass on to the researchers, and vice versa, researchers can point out issues that should be regulated and where the scientific knowledge is sufficient to do so,” says Associate Professor Steffen Foss Hansen, DTU Environment who leads this part of the project.

DTU Environment will also investigate how regulation can promote innovation, e.g. to accelerate the development of environmentally friendly alternatives. It is well-known that regulation with the aim of limiting a given risk can boost innovation, but what it takes to make this happen within the plastic field, the researchers will investigate further in the MarinePlastic Research Center.