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Interview: On the right path to international standardization

In connection with the concluding conference of the funding priority "Plastics in the Environment", at which several joint projects also dealt with modeling approaches and measuring methods for the analysis of plastic discharges into the soil and wastewater (see our report), we asked an expert on the subject for his appraisal of the results and about the present situation with the standardization of the measuring methods: Dr. Claus Gerhard Bannick is head of the specialist department for wastewater technology research at the German Environment Agency (UBA).


Dr. Bannick, the concluding conference of the BMBF funding priority "Plastics in the Environment" was recently held online. Eight of the joint projects were, in the wider sense, involved with the topic of "Microplastics in the water cycle". As far as you are concerned, did any useful results emerge from this topic?


Most definitely. With this project, Germany has an absolute unique selling point in international microplastic research – we must be very grateful to the BMBF here for tackling this subject at such an early stage. Especially as far as the methodology development is concerned, a great deal has been achieved in the various projects. Without such a harmonized procedure, a comparison of results from various projects, areas or also continents would not be possible.

In this connection, I would also like to particularly emphasize the "cross-sectional groups". Here, members of all projects met up to collate the attained findings. Particularly important from my point of view was the "Analytics" cross-sectional group, which had drawn up a status paper on the study of microplastics. We have just fed this paper into the international standardization in order to make it an ISO standard. It is simply not enough to have an effective procedure only in Germany or in Europe. The problem of plastics in the environment is an international challenge for which we also need global data that has been collected according to a standard methodology.


It is not just with microplastics that there is a lack of valid and comparable data despite the many studies that have been carried out on this subject. The call for standardization of definitions and measuring methods has been echoing through the specialist world for some time now. Why, in your opinion, are things not really moving on this front?


I categorically disagree with you on that. We are making good progress in the field of standardization. We have recently set up a joint working group from the ISO TC 147 Water and the ISO TC 61 Plastic, which has since begun its work. Here, the first drafts have been drawn up for a policy document and sampling as well as the currently relevant detection process (thermo-analytical but also spectroscopic). The proposals for these documents are based 90 % on findings from the above-mentioned funding priority.

As far as the definitions are concerned, we fixed them in the ISO two years ago. Unfortunately – and that is due to the sectoral organization of the standardization committees – not everybody knew about this (not even in the ISO). The definitions for nano, micro and macroplastic can be found in ISO TR 21960.

But even if it does not look from the outside as if things are progressing fast enough, it is absolutely right to pursue the path of international standardization. We live in a globally active community. The seas connect the continents and do not stop at national borders. In this respect, a solution can only be found if there are joint international efforts. Uniform methods for obtaining uniform data are a first step towards this.


The BKV has just extended its model "From Land to Sea" with the report "Plastics in the Environment", and now also includes discharges into the soil and inland waterways. What importance do you attach to such modeling in general and to the BKV model in particular?

Models are very important. Their results provide an idea of where something needs to be done and where things possibly have a little more time or where data are lacking – for example also from the ground and the air. There is also considerable work to be done here on the research side. And that takes us back to the first and second questions: What procedures were used to collect and measure the data? In order to obtain good valid information from models, valid data are required. The methods we are currently standardizing will be able to provide such data. To come back to the BKV model, it is certainly a model that, as far as I know, is very well developed. Comparisons of the results with others show a high level of magnitude conformity. I believe, also in the case of modeling, that standardization can be a platform for harmonizing between methodical approaches and can help to make studies of possible discharge pathways into the environment and distribution patterns in the environment even more accurate.

Irrespective of this, all of us are called on in our own personal lives to ensure that less plastic gets into the environment (and here I am referring to the broad definition given in the funding priority).


(May 2021)

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