Article

News

Launch of research into nanoplastics pollution in inland waters

In 2015 a new research project, party financed by Technology Foundation STW, began mapping the extent to which Dutch inland waters are polluted by extremely small plastic particles. Researchers from Wageningen University (WUR), Utrecht University and KWR are developing new methods to build up knowledge about plastics pollution.

Plastics pollution

By approving the funds, STW gave the green light to the research project, which is called ‘Technologies for the Risk Assessment of MicroPlastics’ (TRAMP). Over the next four years, the project should discover how extremely small plastic nanoparticles can be measured, the degree to which they pollute inland aquatic areas in the Netherlands, and how to determine their harmfulness. The researchers also want to develop calculation models to predict how plastics pollution evolves in relation to the production of plastics.

‘There is a great need for more clarity when it comes to plastics pollution,’ says Prof. Bart Koelmans of WUR, who is leading the project. ‘Lots of people want to know how big a problem it is, why plastic particles might be dangerous, and whether they’re an issue in the Netherlands.’ Together with the research group of Prof. Annemarie van Wezel, who is associated with Utrecht University and KWR, Koelmans expects that the TRAMP project will throw more light on these questions.

KWR’s role

‘KWR’s particular contributions involve the measurement method for nanoplastics, our knowledge of the particles’ behaviour/removal during water treatment, and our insight into the impact on humans (using bioassays),’ says Van Wezel. ‘Also, via the joint research programme for the water companies, we want to plug into this new knowledge with a view to translating it for application in the drinking water sector. What is relatively new is the focus on nanoplastics in freshwater. Up until now, the marine environment received most of the attention.’

Nanoplastics

Over the last couple of decades or so, scientists have observed plastics pollution in all kinds of aquatic environments, particularly in the oceans. The consequences for marine life are often very apparent. Animals get entangled in plastic nets and lines, or become undernourished because they ingest more plastic than food. But the impact of plastic nanoparticles, which are too small to be observed with a standard microscope, is for the most part unknown. The particles are the result of the slow but steady breakdown of plastics in the environment into ever smaller fragments. Perhaps this occurs in freshwater as well as seawater.

Scientists assume that such nanoplastics bring health hazards with them. One possible danger is that nanoplastics accumulate in plants or animals, and thus end up in our food chain. Nanoplastics might also easily bind themselves to harmful compounds and then release them once they enter our bodies.

Large group of research partners

Nanoplastics have so far only been researched in small-scale projects. ‘TRAMP is the first nanoplastics project to operate on such a large scale,’ says Koelmans. The programme is extensive because of its objective of rendering nanoplastics both measurable and predictable, but also because – which makes TRAMP special – it involves a large group of research partners who have invested heavily in the project alongside STW. The group consists of eight waterboards, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, STOWA, IMARES, NVWA, RIKILT and RIWA. These parties, together with the Deltares research institute, will remain closely involved during the course of the project and will, ultimately, be able to make practical use of its results.

TRAMP has been approved within the STW’s Open Technology Programme. This programme is one of the funding instruments through which STW promotes new technologies of economic and societal value.