Newsletter no. 4 highlights some recent events and activities within the NETmicroplastic network such as our webinar and our questionnaire-based surveys conducted among various stakeholder groups. It presents a review of NETmicroplastic’s first project year and gives an outlook towards upcoming activities in 2024.
KUNSTSTOFFE UND KOMPOSTIERUNG
On 8 November 2023, the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology and Bündnis Mikroplastikfrei co-organized a NETmicroplastic Webinar on the topic „KUNSTSTOFFE UND KOMPOSTIERUNG – Aktuelle Herausforderungen und Innovationen zur Mikroplastikvermeidung“ (in German). Speakers representing industry, municipality, and academia gave expert talks followed by a discussion with the online audience on how to improve waste management, including measures to reduce plastic in organic waste bins and finally in compost production.
Silvia Seizer (Brantner GmbH, Digital Solutions) presented an AI controlled scanner for detecting disruptive substances that is directly built into garbage trucks to evaluate the collected waste and identify locations with high miss rate. In the future, a rating could be applied to the locations as a basis for a bonus system. The scanner is already in use in some cities in Austria and Germany and currently allows distinguishing among 32 different substances. Thomas Prenner from GVU Scheibbs (Community Scheibbs) shared his success story of introducing the so-called „Bio-Kreislauf-Sackerl (BKS)“ in Scheibbs and Melk in 2020. In these two towns and surrounding areas, the fully compostable BKS bags were put into general use as packaging bags in all retail sale, replacing all other plastic carrier bags, which resulted in considerably reduced amounts of non-compostable plastic in biowaste, especially in combination with intensive public relation activities. Christian Zafiu (BOKU – University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences) reported the results of a rot monitoring study using IR spectroscopy for plastic type identification, showing that after more than 2 weeks no biodegradable plastic larger than 10 mm was found. Discussions on the plastic challenge in the composting process revealed the necessity for a clear and uniform labelling scheme for carrier bags, which would allow better recognition with a KI scanner system (to distinguish from non-compostable plastic) and facilitate proper use and disposal by consumers, especially if broadly communicated to avoid confusion with other ecolabels.
Brantner Green Solutions was awarded for a contaminant scanner.
NETmicroplastic Survey with farmers from Lower Austria
An online-survey using questionnaires with 18 questions on resources and equipment in agriculture was conducted in cooperation with the Agricultural Chamber of Lower Austria. 57 farmers participated in the survey, and the questions were answered by 33 farmers on average. The majority of respondents (67%) use plastic equipment like foils and nets for protective purposes. 90% buy those resources and equipment from specialist retailers. The majority of respondents (85-100%) know that foils, nets, irrigation pipes, clips and growth sheets contain or are made of plastic, while knowledge is limited on plastic in fertilizers (14%), treated/coated seeds (9%) and plant protection products (36%).
The question whether farmers had ever used products not made of conventional plastic was answered with yes by half of the respondents. About 60% of these farmers stated that, in their experience, bioplastic products had poor durability and thus increased workload, apart from difficulties in application. Products often were found not as long-lived as conventional products but convenient, since the bioplastic can be left on the field.
Most farmers (77%) did not have any negative experience with any type of plastic products. Reasons mentioned for negative experience were plastic occurring on the fields due to littering and wind transportation, and clips and strings being left on the ground that later on turned up in the tillage equipment.
The majority of respondents (87%) would like to test alternative products, especially strings for stem bonding in vineyards and for straw bales, irrigation products, fertilizers and plant production products, if they were in the same price range and of comparable quality regarding handling and durability as conventional products. Recognition of certification labels for biodegradable plastic products (as shown in the graphs below) was poor, as only 21% of the respondents recognized the TÜV Austria label and only 3.4% had ever heard about the DIN label. The TÜV Austria OK biodegradable SOIL label guarantees that a product is completely biodegradable in the soil with no adverse effects on the environment. DIN CERTCO offers certification for mulch films, intermediates and materials according to DIN EN 17033 : Plastics – Biodegradable mulch films for use in agriculture and gardening.
What can we do to get farmers better involved and better informed about new trends? According to the questionnaire most likely through webinars (73%) and awareness raising by the Agricultural Chamber (63%). In fact, the outcome of the questionnaire will be published in January 2024 in the journal “Die Landwirtschaft”, a monthly journal edited by the Agricultural Chamber of Lower Austria that reports on production-engineering, economic aspects, and agricultural policy issues.
NETmicroplastic Review 2023 and outlook 2024
As the countdown to the end of year has begun, let us look back onto NETmicroplastic’s first year, its fun moments and achievements. 2023 was an intense year of networking: End of April we 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. In November, AIT together with Bündnis Mikroplastikfrei organized a Webinar on the challenges of microplastic in composting, featuring experts from industry, municipality, and academia (see this newsletter). Moreover, in 2023 we have built a public database (accessible via https://www.net-microplastic.eu/database) that comprises ongoing and past Austrian and European projects on (micro)plastic in soil, (bio)plastics recycling, and the development of alternative biodegradable plastic materials, in addition to information on relevant policies & strategies (government-driven efforts) and initiatives (public-driven efforts).
Several surveys have been conducted. Our survey among students of Austrian universities/FHs/agricultural schools assessed their level of knowledge about microplastic in soil, while a survey among compost facility owners and compost plant manufacturers was focused on the challenges of plastic in composting. Also, we ran a survey among local farmers (addressed via the Agricultural Chamber NÖ) on the use of plastic products and equipment (see this newsletter). Our final survey targeting the bioplastics industry with a focus on the technological and economic assessment of bioplastic materials is still ongoing.
The collective results obtained from the Stakeholder Workshop including the World Café-discussions, our various surveys and the online-database shall feed into publications in scientific and sector-specific journals and in district newspapers and shall allow the formulation of policy recommendations to stimulate use of biomaterials and circular economy approaches. Specifically, NETmicroplastic results are flowing into the interim evaluation of the Austrian Action Plan Aktionsplan Mikroplastik 2022–2025 (bmk.gv.at) (contributions still possible till 31st December, 2023) and will initiate a Roadmap Consultation Workshop planned for June 2024 at the AIT/UFT campus in Tulln.
That’s all (for now)
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”
Newsletter no. 3
Newsletter no. 3 highlights some recent developments within the NETmicroplastic network and welcomes new members. It covers a report on our activities during summer, among others on a demo-event on “real-life” composting technologies, where we ran a mini-survey among the participants. We present our newly established database on microplastic-related initiatives and policies on our website, which is also showing some other new features. Finally, we give an outlook towards some upcoming activities.
Projects, policies, and initiatives database
The NETmicroplastic team was quite active during summertime and has re-organized the NETmicroplastic website. Now you can find on our website more information related to the network’s orgnisational structure and on ways of how to participate in and profit from the network, even if you are not a core partner. We also provide new information material, both in English and German. We are most proud to present on our website some key features of our database, which was built in cooperation with our core network partners Bündnis Mikroplastikfrei, HBLA und Bundesamt Klosterneuburg, Aimplas, IUTA, Agricultural Chamber of Lower Austria, Environment Agency Austria, European Bioplastics e.V., Wageningen University and Wassercluster Lunz. In the database you can find current and past Austrian and European projects on (micro)plastic in soil, (bio)plastics recycling and the development of alternative biodegradable plastic materials, in addition to information on relevant policies & strategies (government-driven efforts) and initiatives (public-driven efforts).
If you are of the opinion that YOUR project or initiative or some relevant policies & strategies of YOUR country are missing, please let us know via firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be more than happy to add it to the NETmicroplastic database.
New NETmicroplastic members
NETmicroplastic is governed by the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology (coordinator), supported by its nine core network partners from Austria, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands and its funding body, the Gesellschaft für Forschungsförderung NÖ (GFF). All three parties together form the Steering Board, which on a regular basis evaluates the network’s status and decides on future steps. The NETmicroplastic network strives to extend well beyond its core members, and parties interested in helping tackle the microplastic challenges may join in at any time. The NETmicroplastic membership is free, and its benefits are listed here: https://www.net-microplastic.eu/join-in/.
Today we welcome eight new NETmicroplastic members:
AGES is a government owned agency with a public mission and a research organisation attached to the Federal Ministry for Health and to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management. Key responsibilities of AGES are food safety, agriculture and food security, nutrition, food quality and public health. The department for Soil Health and Plant Nutrition is responsible for soil and fertilizer analysis, including contaminants, soil monitoring tasks in the context of sustainable plant production as well as for national fertiliser control.
The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) Austria is an independent non-profit organization based in Vienna. The main areas of research and consultancy work include plant production, animal husbandry and sustainable food systems. A core competency of FiBL Austria is sustainability assessment of food supply chains and agricultural systems by analysing aspects of sustainability on product, field, farm/enterprise or sector level.
The Soil and Plant Analysis Unit of the Styrian Provincial Government lists the following fields of activity:
• Soil testing for proper fertilization
• Studies on the application of sewage sludge to agricultural land
• Analyses for the Styrian agricultural soil protection program
• Cross Compliance-controls
• Leaf and fruit analyses
• Analysis of farm fertilizers
As an internationally well-recognized Research Center for Materials Characterization and Non-Destructive Testing, RECENDT GmbH has operated very successfully within the Austrian and international markets since 2009. The range of services incorporates the whole R&D process chain and stretches from application-oriented fundamental research to the development of state-of-the-art technology for industrial applications.
The Edtbauer BIO AUSTRIA dairy cattle farm offers farm holidays and includes a small family business, the “Innovation Farm Edtbauer”. One of their innovations is a “metal wheel 2.0” for motor mowers and balk mowers that has turned into a commercial product, which works against soil compaction, fodder pollution, environmental pollution and soil erosion. Customers can choose between standard wheels and custom-made wheels, which are produced by partner companies in the area.
Witasek works in professional plant protection with many years of experience specialized on forestry and viticulture. The product range includes mechanical tree protection, pheromones and traps, chemical plant protection and mechanical vine protection. Witasek offers a large range of products to protect plants in forestry, wine and fruit growing. With their “Biowit” line, they also have biodegradable alternatives to traditional products.
The 8th International Practitioner Day Compost 2023 took place on 6 September at the compost facilities in Vienna and attracted about 700 presenters and visitors, including compost facility owners and planners, farmers, industry producers, waste managers and related associations, and the interested public. NETmicroplastic joined in and took the opportunity to talk with relevant stakeholders and learn about the latest technological innovations in the fields of biomass production, separation, analysis and transport, which were demonstrated in full operation by about 45 exhibitors.
NETmicroplastic participated in the 1st European Healthy Soils Conference in Muttenz near Basel (on 13-15 September 2023), a 3-day conference that aimed to bring together soil scientists and stakeholders from industry, agriculture and the public sector, and to discuss about how to maintain healthy soils and elucidate opportunities and benefits arising from soil health.
Questionnaire and interviews with compost facility owners and compost plant manufacturers
NETmicroplastic took part in the 8th International Practitioner Day Compost in Vienna, where we handed out to compost facility owners and compost plant manufacturers a mini-questionnaire with 5 plastic-related questions. Of in total 40 questionnaires, more than one third were done in the frame of interviews with randomly chosen participants. Half of the respondents said that plastic amounts to 70% of all disruptive substances in the collected waste and 74% stated that plastic is sorted out mostly manually before composting. A solid majority reported that all types of plastic are removed, while some respondents stated that only nondegradable plastic is removed. “The rustling of the plastic upon touching is different for degradable plastic”, they claimed. When asked for suggestions to reduce or fully avoid plastic in collected waste, greatest potential for improvement was seen regarding changes in the current collection system (30%) and better education of the public (26%). 11% generally want to better control the biowaste bins and collection locations, and 15% want to impose sanctions on people that are adding plastic products to the biowaste bins. These “sanctions” range from non-emptying the bins (as already practiced in some municipalities in Austria) to fines and increased operating costs. 17% of the compost facility owners and compost plant manufacturers wish for alternative, improved plastic materials, more degradable ones and/or restriction and ban of currently existing plastic materials. Least potential for solving the problem of plastic in biowaste was attributed to waste treatment and processing.
Upcoming NETmicroplastic activities
On 8 November 2023 we will organize a webinar on microplastic in compost with experts on waste management, recycling and circularity from industry and academia. The webinar will be held in German, with the title “Kunststoffe und Kompostierung – Aktuelle Herausforderungen und Innovationen zur Mikroplastikvermeidung“. The focus will be on processing and separation techniques and the correct practice of using organic waste bins. For more information on the programme and free registration please visit https://www.net-microplastic.eu/microplastic-webinar/.
NETmicroplastic will participate at the Young Science Congress in Klosterneuburg (AT) supporting the workshop activities of our NETmicroplastic member AGES who is nominated for the Citizen Science Award 2023 with the project “Bunter Boden” and the soil plastic app developed within the EU project Minagris.
That’s all (for now)
“The secret of getting ahead, is getting started”
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!
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