Research platform PLENTY - Plastics in the Environment and Society

Plastic bottle in the sand next to the ocean

More than eight million tons of plastic go to the oceans every year according to the United Nations Environment Programme. (Image: Creative Commons CC0, Pixabay)

Project start: 1 May 2018

Cooperation between the Faculty of Life Sciences, the Faculty of Earth Sciences, Geography and Astronomy, and the Faculty of Social Sciences

microplastics.univie.ac.at

The research platform PLENTY - Plastics in the Environment and Society investigates global plastic pollution in a holistic approach. In addition to the biotic and abiotic interactions on the surface of plastic in aquatic systems, the aim is to investigate how information and altered perception can potentially change the use of plastics in society and the associated material flows. The research platform is led by marine biologist Gerhard Herndl, with the participation of environmental geoscientist Thilo Hofmann and science researcher Ulrike Felt.

The new research platform emerged from the Environmental Sciences Research Network (ESRN): Gerhard Herndl (Faculty of Life Sciences), Thilo Hofmann (Faculty of Earth Sciences, Geography and Astronomy) and Ulrike Felt (Faculty of Social Sciences) developed the idea to explore the topic of plastics together in the course of ESRN activities.

The research platform PLENTY has been set up for three years by the Rectorate of the University of Vienna. Research platforms of the University of Vienna aim to promote interdisciplinary, innovative research projects. PLENTY is one of four new platforms approved in 2017.

Scientific contact
Univ.-Prof. Dr. Gerhard J. Herndl
Department of Limnology and Bio-Oceanography
University of Vienna
1090 Vienna, Althanstraße 14 (UZA I)
T +43-1-4277-764 31
gerhard.herndl@univie.ac.at

Abstract

PLENTY (started in May 2018)

Plastic is one of most widely used material in modern societies with an annual production of 322 million tons. Both the versatility and durability of plastics makes it a commonly used material, on the one hand, but causes growing environmental problems and concerns, on the other hand. While marine systems have been fairly well studied in terms of presence of plastic materials, rivers, lakes and estuaries are less well studied in this respect. Reviewing recent studies published on plastics as an environmental problem reveals that essentially all the work published thus far is rather mono-disciplinary and largely restricted to the concentration of plastics of different sizes in the environment. Comprehensive interdisciplinary studies are lacking almost entirely. This gap should be filled by the research platform Plastics in the Environment and Society. Making efficient use of the spectrum of scientific fields present at the University of Vienna, we will establish a coherent, holistic research platform addressing the global plastic pollution combining environmental with societal aspects. Based on interviews and card-based discussion forums, the perception of plastic products in our society will be investigated. What role is ascribed to the use of plastics in the society? What does the society know about plastic material? Are there connections between knowledge about plastics, its perception on the consumer level and as an environmental thread? Ultimately, the question should be addressed, in which way information and changing perceptions on the use are capable to alter consumer habits. Plastic material exists in the size continuum ranging from macro- to micro- and nanoplastics reacting in different ways with organisms including microbes. Individual size fractions can provoke different effects. These will be holistically investigated including the role of plasticassociated microbial biofilms and plastic additives released from the plastics into the environment. What is the effect of bringing new scientific knowledge on the environmental impact of plastics on the societal perception and acceptance of plastic products? These are questions addressed by the research platform within its first three years.