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Empa study on plastic waste in Switzerland

The Empa study focuses on seven plastics, namely polyethylene (LDPE and HDPE), polypropylene, polystyrene, expanded polystyrene, PVC and PET that are used in packaging, textiles, insulation materials and agricultural film. The research team says it followed the path of the plastics from production to disposal and, on this basis, drew up a model for calculating the material flows. They distinguish – as is generally customary – between macroplastics (larger than 5 mm) and microplastics (smaller than 5 mm). More details on the calculation model and an appraisal of the results by the co-author of the study, Prof. Dr. Bernd Nowack, can be found in a brief interview in this newsletter.

According to Empa, the authors calculated that a total of around 5,120 tons of the seven plastics covered by the study get into the Swiss environment annually. This represents around 0.7 percent of the annual consumption of these plastics in Switzerland. Of this, according to the modelling of the study, around 4,400 tons of macroplastic end up in the soil and around 100 tons in the lakes and rivers. When it comes to microplastics, only 600 tons find their way into or onto the soil, and just under 15 tons are discharged into the waterways. Thus, according to the Empa, the quantities of microplastic are far smaller than those of macroplastic, but the number of particles of microplastic that could have an effect on organisms is very much larger.

However, tyre abrasion is missing from the overall picture of plastic pollution in Switzerland, and this has been identified in other studies as the biggest source of microplastic discharges. Tyre abrasion is now to be investigated as part of an ongoing study.

The Empa research team blames mainly littering for the fact that contamination of the soil is 40 times higher than that of the waterways. The use of plastic film and sheeting in agriculture also contributes heavily to this. Alongside the building industry, agriculture is very much responsible for most of the microplastic discharges into the soil, for example when plastic sheet or pipelines decompose. The authors found that the main sources of microplastic in lakes and rivers are the washing and wearing of synthetic fibre textiles. Cosmetics are also a factor. Nevertheless, efficient wastewater treatment plants filter a large proportion of the microplastic particles out of the effluent, so that the quantity is very small compared with the contamination of the soil.

On the basis of their calculations, the authors have listed some key areas of future research and possible measures. They recommend carrying out in particular more intensive research on the pollution of the soil through plastics. As far as potential measures are concerned, they propose increasing the awareness of consumers to stop littering, introducing more effective street cleaning measures, reducing the discharge of plastic in agriculture, and sensitising companies in the waste and construction industry more to the topic of plastic contamination.

References: D Kawecki, B Nowack; Polymer-Specific Modeling of the Environmental Emissions of Seven Commodity Plastics As Macro- and Microplastics; Environ Sci Technol (2019); doi: 10.1021/acs.est.9b02900

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