Research into plastic litter

Plastic litter has been accumulating in the seas and coastal areas for decades. Despite the seriousness of this problem,  hardly any action was taken or hardly any research was conducted until recently. This started to change only when more and more photographs appeared in the press of seabirds with plastic waste in their stomachs or turtles and marine mammals entangled in plastic debris. The awareness of the presence of huge quantities of waste in the ocean resulted in the question of what was happening on a microscopic level and what impact microplastic had on invertebrates. In 2006, VLIZ was the first one in Flanders to sound the alarm as to the increasing accumulation and impact of litter in coastal ecosystems. The institute currently plays a prominent national and international role in the research into macroplastics and microplastics in aquatic environments and actively contributes to empirically founded policy information, industry-driven solutions and public actions in this domain.

First, let’s go back in time. In May 2006, professor Richard Thomson (University of Plymouth, UK) gave a lecture on the problem of microplastics in aquatic environments, which at the time was totally unknown, at the HELCOM symposium 'Marine Nature Conservation in Europe' in the German city of Stralsund. This lecture inspired VLIZ to publish an article – in co-authorship – in its magazine De Grote Rede. It dealt with the omnipresence of microplastics in the ocean, however small and invisible they may be, and their impact on marine organisms and possibly humans. At Ghent University (UGent), professor Colin Janssen took up the massage and started innovative research into the effects of macroplastics and microplastics in the marine environment. Together with VLIZ, UGent shared this news via several media channels.

Zwerfvuil op het strand

When VLIZ received its research mandate in 2017, it was almost self-evident that it would focus on the impact of litter and contribute to the development of solutions. This was done according to the quintuple helix approach, with the involvement of the academic world, the general public, the industry as well as policymakers, and in relation to human health. VLIZ was the first to examine the topic through a worldwide risk assessment of microplastics in the marine environment. More than twenty policy documents of importance made reference to this top publication based on a meta-analysis of reported effects and exposure data. On a national level, VLIZ initiated the first baseline measurements for the evaluation of the plastic litter flux to the coast in Flanders (Nulmeting plastic flux, 2020-2022, OVAM/Fostplus). This has resulted in collaboration with Blue Cluster around innovation opportunities and solutions, informing policymakers and helping develop strategies for litter observations (PLUXIN, 2020-2024, VLAIO; MICROFISH, 2020-2021, CEFIC).

On an international level, VLIZ has achieved important goals in the field of cost-effective methodologies for microplastics observations (ANDROMEDA, 2020-2023, JPI Oceans). At the same time, it has continued to contribute to the ecotoxicological assessment of newly developed sustainable bio-based composites for applications in a marine environment (SeaBioComp, 2019-2023, Interreg2Seas; SeaBioMat, 2024-2028, InterregFFW). VLIZ has also aimed its activities at the general public so as to raise awarness and increase knowledge on the plastic problem, e.g. through the citizen science initiatives SeaWatch-B (2014-...) and COLLECT (2020-2023, POGO/ Richard Lounsbery Foundation) as well as the implementation of the European Plastic Pirates initiative in Belgium (2022 Horizon Europe, 2023-2027 VLAIO). At the moment, VLIZ integrates the research into plastic pollution in the wider context of anthropogenic pressure on the coast and ocean. The institute develops strategies and collaborates on the assessment of the combined impact of microplastics and climate change-related stressors (PhD subject of Niu and cooperation with UGent and CONICET, Argentina).

Zooming in on how litter can be reduced in the environment and what mitigating measures can be taken, VLIZ published a policy brief on aquatic plastic catchers with spillover effects on research and innovation in 2020. VLIZ is currently leading the Horizon Europe project INSPIRE (2023-2027), cooperates with Flemish companies in TREASURE (2023-2026, InterReg North Sea, 2023-2026) and provides support to a PhD project funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) [Leone, VLIZ in partnership with UGent and INBO].

In addition, VLIZ is a member of various expert groups within the scope of Flemish and Belgian action plans and international policy processes regarding litter and plastic use at sea (e.g. FOD, OVAM, CCIEP, ICES, POGO and SETAC). To support these processes, VLIZ draws up a policy informing brief providing an overview of the research landscape and the scientific information on (marine) litter and microplastics in Belgium.

As a result, it is now reasonable to assert that VLIZ has been very useful – both nationally and internationally – in turning the long neglected problem of litter pollution in the seas and rivers into a well-studied research topic as well as into policy measures and public support necessary to address this issue.