Wageningen University and Research Centre

Study into Dutch ‘plastic soup` launched following STW investment


Technology Foundation STW has invested in a new research project aimed at assessing the degree to which inland waterways in the Netherlands are polluted with extremely small plastic particles. For this project, scientists from Wageningen UR and Utrecht University will be developing new methods and acquiring knowledge on plastic pollution. STW is investing 650,000 euros in the study. A broad consortium of research partners is contributing an additional 220,000 euros.

In awarding the funding, STW is giving the go-ahead for the project, entitled Technologies for the Risk Assessment of MicroPlastics (TRAMP). Over the next four years, the project should answer the questions of how to measure plastic nanoparticles, the extent to which Dutch freshwater areas are polluted with these particles and how you can determine how harmful they are. The researchers also aim to develop calculation models to predict how the extent of plastic pollution coincides with the production of plastics.

‘We see a significant need for greater clarity regarding plastic pollution,’ says Professor Bart Koelmans, who is heading the project from Wageningen UR. ‘Many people want to know the extent of the problem, why plastic particles may be dangerous and/or whether this is also the case in the Netherlands.’ Together with Professor Annemarie van Wezel’s research group, affiliated with Utrecht University and KWR Watercycle Research Institute, Koelmans expects the TRAMP project to answer these questions.

Harmful substances

For around two decades, scientists have found that all kinds of bodies of water, particularly oceans, are becoming polluted with plastic. The consequences for sea life are sometimes painfully visible. Animals become entangled in plastic nets and lines or become undernourished because they ingest more plastic than food. However, the consequences of plastic nanoparticles that are too small to observe with a standard microscope are largely unknown. The particles originate when plastic gradually disintegrates into increasingly smaller pieces in the environment. This probably not only takes place in seawater, but also in freshwater.

Scientists suspect that these ‘nanoplastics’ may present health risks. A possible danger is that nanoplastics accumulate in plants or animals, ultimately ending up in our food chain. Moreover, nanoplastics can probably easily bind harmful substances to them, which are then released once they are in our bodies.

Large group of research partners

So far, nanoplastics have only been examined in small-scale studies. ‘TRAMP is the first nanoplastics project to be carried out on such a large scale,’ says Koelmans. The programme is not only sizeable because it aims to make the nanoplastics both measurable and predictable; what is unique about TRAMP is the large group of research partners who, in addition to STW, are investing substantial amounts in the project. The group comprises eight water boards, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, STOWA, IMARES, NVWA, RIKILT and RIWA. Throughout the project, these parties will continue to be involved in the project together with the research institutes RIVM and Deltares, and will ultimately be able to apply the results.

TRAMP was recognised within the STW Open Technology Programme, one of the funding instruments used by STW to enable new technology with economic and social value.

Contribution by IMARES

IMARES Wageningen UR is contributing its unique knowledge of plastics in the marine environment to the study. The researchers will participate with analyses and infrastructure via the labs in IJmuiden and Den Helder. The results will be integrated with work in parallel projects and used for the development of applications and methods for use in the marine environment. Researcher Edwin Foekema will be sitting on the user committee.

About STW

Technology changes the world and has an enormous impact on our lives. Technology Foundation STW stands at the cradle of that change. We facilitate knowledge sharing between the technical sciences and users of that scientific knowledge. We finance excellent application-oriented research and assist in applying the results in industry, hospitals or more broadly in society.

STW is part of the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, NWO) and is funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture & Science, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the business community and various other organisations in carrying out its mission. STW’s budget in 2014 was 90 million euros, of which 51 million originated from NWO/OCW, 20 million from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, 9 million from third parties and 10 million from cash co-financing by companies participating in research projects.

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