What we can’t see tends not to get our full attention. One example of this is our oceans. These vast bodies of water swallow everything human beings produce, consume and throw away. But… the world’s oceans are filling up with rubbish and the limits of ecological self-cleaning have long been exceeded.
Our oceans are the earth’s largest habitats. Together with the atmosphere, they
play a key role in the climate system, are home to a wealth of diverse animal
and plant species and contain valuable resources such as oil, natural gas and
minerals. Nevertheless, we still know relatively little about the oceans
German Federal Ministry of Education and Research
One of the worst ‘invisible’ problems for our oceans is plastic waste which accounts for up to 90 percent of the rubbish in the oceans and on the beaches. It is increasingly becoming and existential threat to marine flora and fauna. Today it is possible see pictures of plastic islands in the sea, dead sea animals caught up in abandoned fishing nets or marine birds that mistake plastic particles for food.
The problem, however, is not simply plastics being deposited in the seas. Larger pieces of plastic are broken down into smaller fragments by UV radiation and the action of waves turning them into microplastics if they measure less than 5 mm. Ultimately, it takes hundreds of years for these microplastics to fully disintegrate. In addition to the breakdown of larger plastic rubbish, the cosmetics industry uses microplastics in many creams and shower gels. The washing of synthetic fleece clothing and the everyday wear and tear on vehicle tyres which are then washed into the drains are other causes of microplastics which end up in our seas.
In order to help combat this problem a concerted effort and the drawing up of international guidelines is needed in order to be able to continue to sustainably interact with the oceans. The basis for these guidelines will be provided by intensified research because we still know too little about the impacts of microplastics on marine ecosystems.
The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is launching a pilot measure concerned with Microplastics in Marine Systems together with eleven other research funding organisations from nine European countries under the framework of the European Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans Joint Programming Initiative (JPI Oceans).
The aim is to develop a standardised measurement methodology to provide the analytical bases for comparable scientific studies as well as for monitoring. A further aim is to find out how particles spread in the marine environment and what toxicological effects they have on marine organisms.
To begin with, 7 million euros has been made available on an international basis. The results from the funded projects will form a key contribution to a joint plan of action of the countries involved in this field.
Download a PDF about the The Future of the Oceans: Joint Research for a Healthy Marine Environment.
Photo credit: “www.colourbox.com”. Material used in the preparation of this article has been drawn from The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).