During the last decade, we have become increasingly aware of the damage caused by plastics. There are the plastic ‘islands’ in the oceans, but also the micro- and nanoplastics in things like toiletries and clothing. There is an urgent need to tackle the problem. Until now, research looking at microplastics (pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm) has focused primarily on the marine environment. Microplastics can easily enter the food chain, harming people and animals. However, some of the microplastics in our seas come from the land. Action will be needed here to effectively reduce marine levels.
In 2014, we launched a study of levels of microplastics in four major European rivers. This is the first time Europe has conducted quantitative research looking at microplastics in rivers. The survey will generate an initial picture of the amount of suspended microplastics coming from the land. The rivers vary, for example, in terms of the size of the catchment and the catchments also vary in terms of elevation profiles, population centres and industrial areas. The rivers all flow into different European seas, allowing us to sketch an initial picture of microplastics in rivers throughout Europe. In addition, the study will identify possible sources and develop a monitoring system. The researchers hope the results will raise awareness of the problem among the river management authorities and make a positive contribution to the right measures being taken. Deltares is coordinating the research with Eunomia on behalf of the European Commission's Environment Directorate-General.