NETmicroplastic Newsletter No.2
The newsletter covers a report on our first Stakeholder event held last April at the UFT Tulln and gives an overview on our plans for the near future. Also, we report first results from our student survey and give an outlook on activities which are currently in planning.
Report on the 1st NETmicroplastic Stakeholder event
On April 27, NETmicroplastic coordinator Claudia Preininger hosted a full-day stakeholder workshop on the AIT/UFT campus in Tulln, where relevant stakeholders and the interested public shared their knowledge and ideas on the use and fate of (micro)plastics in agriculture. There, 35 attendees (14 representing the core NETmicroplastic network) were engaging in expert talks and interactive discussions around potential impacts of microplastic on the environment and human health. Another focus was on promoting innovation in the fields of classical polymeric and new materials.
In her welcoming speech, C. Preininger affirmed that stakeholder involvement is key to NETmicroplastic’s success. She emphasized on the importance of many different stakeholder groups working together in the network, all aiming at finding answers and solutions to issues around “microplastics in soil”. Indeed, multi-actor engagement is needed for granting that new technology approaches and management strategies will gain broad acceptance in society.
The various facets of NETmicroplastic were amply reflected in the workshop program. Keynote presentations were given by Martin Löder, University of Bayreuth, on “Microplastic contamination in soil: Analytical Methods and the Role of Organic Fertilizers” and by Friedrich von Hesler, Novamont, on “Biodegradable Mulch Film: Properties, Applications and Challenges in Marketing.” The presentation given by Helene Walch (Environment Agency Austria) addressed the occurrence of microplastics in agriculture. In addition, there were talks on plastic emissions (Daniel Steinitz, Bündnis Mikroplastikfrei) and plastic compounds derived from tire wear (Thorsten Hüffer, University of Vienna). In line with NETmicroplastic’s focus on fruit and wine production, Franz Rosner (HBLA und Bundesamt für Wein- und Obstbau) gave a comprehensive view on the use of plastics in viticulture and fruit growing. Ferran Marti Ferrer’s (Aimplas) talk on “The main advantages of the use of biopolymers in plasticulture products” addressed multiple technological and usage aspects of plastic material. Finally, the report by Heide Spiegel (AGES) & Ildiko Heim (Fibl Austria) showed field trials and surveys on the occurrence of microplastics.
A special highlight of the day was a joint visit to the composting plant of Brantner Österreich GmbH in Krems-Gneixendorf. There, workshop participants could take a tour on the company grounds and gather cluse-up sights of the processes of sorting and up-piling of plastic items contained in household compost waste. First-hand impressions from the excursion were brought back at a World Café-session covering the NETmicroplastic focus topics “Technology”, “Environment” and “Education” in relation to microplastics in soil. Vivid discussions arose on issues such as linking environment and technology and developing viable and sustainable solutions regarding the use of plastics in agriculture. Regarding the properties of plastics, it was considered important to evaluate bioplastics as well as conventional plastics in terms of biological impact and degradability in soil. Workshop participants saw an urgent need for new (polymeric) materials that may replace poorly degradable materials entering the soil in present-day practices. The final wrap-up once again pointed towards efforts needed for increasing awareness-raising about microplastics and for preserving soil health. The workshop was brought to a close with fine wine and snacks in a relaxed atmosphere.
The collective results obtained from the workshop are presently feeding into a stakeholder mapping. Moreover, they set the frame for running a national stakeholder survey among farmers, which is already close to kick-start. Stay tuned for NETmicroplastic’s next steps in its endeavours towards active stakeholder engagement and interaction.
Take a snapshot of the students´ survey results
From March 22 to May 13 a survey was undertaken among students of Austrian universities. 386 students (52% Lower Austria, 31% Vienna, 10% Upper Austria) participated, 316 of them completed the survey, one third of them using a smartphone, two thirds the desktop. 98% of the students have heard about microplastic before, mainly in the connex of water and sea pollution. This also correlates well with their estimated knowledge which is rated highest for microplastic in water/river/sea and lowest for agriculture. The main source of information was internet (81%) followed by TV (67%), friends & family (44%) and radio (38%). Scientific journals (37%) and teaching lessons/courses (31%) contribute to a lesser content. In the students´ opinion microplastic in soil mainly comes from plastic waste (18%), but also from fertilizer use (15%) and tire wear (9%) (graphic left).
54% of the students believe that microplastic is generally very harmful, especially in water/river/sea (82%) and agriculture (64%) compared to 40% and 31% in cosmetics and textiles.
37% of the participants have heard about bioplastic before and 18% believe that bioplastic is less harmful than conventional plastic. 87% consider enhanced biodegradability the main benefit of bioplastic. Most students believe that starch is the main source for the production of bioplastic (graphic on the right).
Mini-reports of past events with participation of NETmicroplastic core-network partners
The Microplastics Scientific Workshop (Amsterdam, 8-9 May 2023) organised by Plastics Europe (https://plasticseurope.org) was a packed programme with representatives of many great and ambitious research projects such as Brigid, microOne, MINAGRIS, LABPLAS, MOMENTUM and CUSP. Efforts were made to build bridges to understand, assess and deal with (micro)plastics for human and environmental health. Conversing between industry, researchers, government and non-governmental representations was a good first step forward in addressing this societal issue.
The 33rd SETAC Europe was held from 30 April, 2023 to 4 May, 2023 in Dublin with microplastic being one of the main research topics discussed. Beside the ecotoxicity, LCA and detection of microplastics also the fate and behaviour of microplastic particles in soil were discussed and many results of finalized and ongoing projects (e.g., Papillons, https://www.papillons-h2020.eu) were presented in platform and poster presentations. The lack of harmonized preparation and detection methods and due to this the lack of comparability of different data was one major point which was often addressed.
Our plans and activities
With the support of the Agricultural Chamber of Lower Austria we are actually running a survey in Austria that aims to elucidate the use and experience of farmers with plastic products in different cultivation systems. First results will be published in our third newsletter.
In November 2023 we will organize a webinar on microplastic in compost with experts on waste management, recycling and circularity from industry and university. Focus will be on processing and separation techniques and the correct use of organic waste bins. More details in the third newsletter.
That’s all (for now)
We wish you a happy summer!
NETmicroplastic Newsletter No.1
With this newsletter, we want to inform you about the NETmicroplastic initiative, its core network partners, and current and upcoming activities. NETmicroplastic is a multi-actor network focusing on microplastic in soil. It aims at gaining scientific knowledge, identifying potential risks, and triggering innovation in all microplastic-related fields, while setting a special focus on fruit and wine growing.
Talk with Claudia Preininger, initiator and coordinator of NETmicroplastic
With the aim of incentivizing research and development, the province of Lower Austria runs a programme for building a number of thematic networks of critical size. NETmicroplastic initiated by the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology is one of them. We talk with Claudia Preininger (CP), who developed the ideas behind NETmicroplastic, about her concept and the network’s plans and future perspectives.
We are familiar with “microplastic” as a catchword in the media, where it is mostly presented as a threat to human health and the environment. What are the real dangers?
CP: We all agree that we need to reduce plastic waste in the environment. Yet, it is not well understood which effects plastics have in the soil, and we still lack standardized analysis methods for detection and quantification. The “real dangers” are not fully clear. It is, therefore, important to take a closer look at the impact of plastic in the environment (considering especially the nexus soil – plant – food) and, at the same time, to look out for new technologies and alternatives to currently used, potentially harmful, plastic materials.
Is this how you came up with the idea to build the NETmicroplastic network?
CP: Right! In fact, linking between the environment and technology is crucial if we want to work out solutions that will be widely accepted by various stakeholders. At the same time, we need to raise awareness of microplastic and, more generally, of the importance of managing soil health. It is very important to me that, in NETmicroplastic, we actually investigate how microplastic interacts with soil, including microorganisms and arthropods, and how crops and other plants are affected, rather than just counting plastic on the field. On the material side, it´s important that we assess bioplastics as critically as is commonly done with conventional plastics, regarding for instance, degradability in soil and biological effects. And that we develop new polymer materials that someday may replace non-readily degradable materials contained in fertilizers, seed coatings, and plastic products currently used in agricultural practice…
So please tell us, how does the network operate?
CP: NETmicroplastic wants to tackle multiple facets of microplastic in soil. Here, the AIT researcher team, including myself, is supported by 11 core network partners from four European countries, mainly from Austria, but also Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. The network is currently composed of policymakers, opinion leaders, the agrochemical industry, technology providers, industry and farmer associations, the educational sector, and of course, scientists. And we want it to develop and spread even more broadly. It’s our priority that we provide information tailored very specifically to our stakeholders’ needs, be it schools or farmers. Also, it is central to the network that its outputs and messages are entirely fact-based, meaning that we strictly avoid ad hoc “plastic bashing”… This is why we have an interplay of many different stakeholders.
What has happened so far and what are the next steps?
CP: We have been quite active in the past five months. We have set up a project website, www.net-microplastic.eu, which has links to relevant projects in the field. Then, there is the twitter account @netmicroplastic, which helps extend and sustain the network, besides various dissemination materials such as brochures. We are especially proud that we have submitted a first European research proposal. Presently, we are working on a stakeholder mapping, which will receive further input from our Stakeholder Workshop – that will be coming up soon, at the end of April!
What else have you got planned?
CP: NETmicroplastic sets a focus on fruit and wine growing, and on composting. So, next steps will be to get relevant stakeholders involved, and to find ways of reducing the use of plastic products in vineyards and orchards without compromising product quality and performance. We also want to bring this knowledge into agricultural schools in Austria. We now have a survey running among university students from different disciplines, where we want to find out what students generally know about microplastic. We will do two other surveys by the summer, one among farmers and the other one among (bio)plastic producers. This will help us define in which direction future research should go. We want to get to know what (bio)plastic producers and farmers think about their perspectives, and also to translate this into activities like training and education.
NETmicroplastic seems to be a lot about stakeholder involvement. Who should get involved and why, and how?
CP: Indeed, we need many different stakeholder groups for finding solutions to issues around microplastic in soil, and to ensure that, later on, our approach will gain wide acceptance in society. To name a few: Policy and decision-makers who provide information on available standards and regulations; industry and industry associations representing the agro-chemical industry; technology providers and plastic material producers who develop more easily degradable products; farmers and farmers’ organizations who report on their experiences with plastic products and point out difficulties; scientists in relevant research areas; and the educational sector, such as agricultural, primary, and secondary schools. For example, teachers who would like to run a soil experiment with their classes or come and visit us at AIT in Tulln are most welcome to become part of the network. Joining in is very easy: Interested parties should send an email to email@example.com for more information.
Does NETmicroplastic have its own research program and funding?
CP: NETmicroplastic is a three year-project funded by the “Gesellschaft für Forschungsförderung” of Lower Austria. However, the plan is that the network will exist and grow beyond the project’s lifetime. Within NETmicroplastic, funding is provided for networking activities like workshops and public events, and for surveys, but there is no funding for impact assessment or research on materials. That is why NETmicroplastic also engages in grant application. Right now we are very busy with acquiring additional research funds.
What do you wish to achieve in the next three years?
CP: Well, first of all – we hope that we have created a steadily growing network that will continue also in the upcoming years, with well-established communication channels among all relevant stakeholder groups. Then, we plan that we have at least two substantial research projects running, where we bring forward some of the NETmicroplastic topics. Another aim is to provide a research and innovation-roadmap for Lower Austria. My personal wish is that we will carry out a number of fun soil projects together with schools. And, regarding research, that we will identify and develop some environmentally friendly materials for plastic products used in wine and fruit growing.
Are you a student?
What are your thoughts about microplastic in soil?
You are very welcome to participate in a brief survey by just following the link below to access the questionnaire. The questionnaire differentiates between students studying in different Austrian provinces. Non-Austrian participants should choose “other”. Survey results will be published on our website.
NETmicroplastic’s core network partners