A scientific perspective on microplastics in nature and society

Working group members

Bart Koelmans
Chair
Professor
University of Wageningen
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Declaration of interests
Sabine Pahl
Vice-Chair
Associate Professor
University of Plymouth
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Thomas Backhaus
Professor
University of Gothenburg
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Filipa Bessa
Postdoctoral Researcher
University of Coimbra
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Geert van Calster
Professor
KU Leuven
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Nadja Contzen
Postdoctoral Researcher
University of Groningen
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Richard Cronin
Water and Marine Advisory Unit, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Ireland
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Tamara Galloway
Professor
University of Exeter
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Andy Hart
Visiting Professor
Newcastle University
Lesley Henderson
Senior Lecturer
Brunel University
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Gabriela Kalčíková
Assistant Professor
University of Ljubljana
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Frank Kelly
Professor
King’s College London
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Bartłomiej Kołodziejczyk
Research Fellow
Stockholm University
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Elda Marku
Professor
University of Tirana
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Wouter Poortinga
Professor
Cardiff University
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Matthias Rillig
Professor
Freie University Berlin
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Erik Van Sebille
Associate Professor
Utrecht University
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Linda Steg
Professor
University of Groningen
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Josef Steidl
Professor Emeritus
Czech Technical University Prague
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Julia Steinhorst
Research Associate
Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies
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Kristian Syberg
Associate Professor
Roskilde University
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Richard Thompson
Professor
University of Plymouth
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Martin Wagner
Associate Professor
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
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Annemarie van Wezel
Professor
KWR Watercycle Research Institute; Utrecht University
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Stephanie Wright
Research Associate
King’s College London
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Kayleigh Wyles
Lecturer
University of Surrey
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The best available evidence suggests that microplastics and nanoplastics do not pose a widespread risk to humans or the environment, except in small pockets. But that evidence is limited, and the situation could change if pollution continues at the current rate.

This is the verdict of SAPEA’s Evidence Review Report on micro- and nanoplastic pollution, published in January 2019. The report is written by a group of world-leading experts nominated by academies across Europe, and informs Scientific Opinion 6 from the European Commission’s Group of Chief Scientific Advisors.

What the report says

The report comprehensively examines the best available evidence from the natural sciences and computer modelling, as well as social, political and behavioural sciences. Its key conclusions are:

  • Microplastics — tiny particles under 5mm in length — are already present across air, soil and sediment, freshwaters, seas and oceans, plants and animals, and in several components of the human diet.
  • These particles come from a variety of sources, including plastic products, textiles, fisheries, agriculture, industry and general waste.
  • In controlled experiments, high concentrations of these particles have been shown to cause physical harm to the environment and living creatures, including inducing inflammation and stress.
  • However, the concentration levels measured in many real-world locations are well below this threshold — though there are also limitations in the measurement methods currently available.
  • Meanwhile, in other parts of the environment, there is no reliable evidence about the levels or effects of these particles. This is true especially of nanoplastics, which are very difficult to measure and evaluate.

Debate and impact

Policy impactAcademic impactMedia coverageEvents
    • The report is being used in a seminar with students of environmental science at

ETH Zurich

    .
Science meets Parliaments 2019
Science meets Parliaments 2019 brought together decision-makers and researchers for a two-day event at the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss the role of science in 21st century policy-making and how to gear it towards solutions to the challenges of our time.

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G7 meeting
Science advisors from the G7 countries, convened by the European Commission and the Chief Science Advisor of Canada, met in Washington DC to discuss the SAPEA report and future cooperation in advising world governments on microplastics.

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European Commission expert workshop
The SAM Unit of the European Commission assembled a range of experts to discuss the SAPEA report and provide input into the forthcoming Scientific Opinion of the GCSA.
ALLEA General Assembly
The ALLEA General Assembly convenes Academies of Sciences and Humanities from 40 countries across the Council of Europe region. SAPEA used the impact of the microplastics report as a springboard to discuss the interaction of science and society.

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European Maritime Day
The European Maritime Day is the annual EU meeting point on maritime affairs and blue growth. It targets maritime professionals, entrepreneurs and ocean leaders from businesses, governments, public institutions, NGOs and academia. Our microplastics report was exhibited as part of this conference.

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EurOCEAN 2019
EurOCEAN is a high-level science-policy conference co-organised by European Marine Board, the European Commission and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.

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GESAMP workshop
GESAMP is the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection. The SAPEA report on microplastics was the subject of the keynote address at a GESAMP expert workshop.

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SETAC Europe
The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry is a global professional society established which provides a forum for individuals and institutions engaged in education, research and development, ecological risk assessment and life-cycle assessment, chemical manufacture and distribution, management and regulation of natural resources, and the study, analysis, and solution of environmental problems. We presented our report on stage in 2019.

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UN World Oceans Day
In 2008, the United Nations General Assembly decided that, as of 2009, 8 June would be designated by the United Nations as World Oceans Day. A large number of events are organised around the world on this date. In 2019, we discussed microplastics with the public at a city science fair in Sopot, Poland, and ran a custom-made escape room game to communicate key microplastics messages.

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Albanian forum on microplastics
The Albanian Academy of Sciences co-organised an event on SAPEA’s microplastics report on 11 June 2019 in Tirana.

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International Science Council
Our report was used as an illustration of best practice in reaching the 2030 UN sustainable development goals by the International Science Council at their meeting in September.

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A scientific perspective on microplastics in nature and society in Slovenia
Our report will be presented by two working group members: Dr Gabriela Kalcikova and Professor Wouter Poortinga. The meeting will be open to a diverse audience from academia and universities, to Slovenian policymakers, NGOs and the private sector.

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