Plastics in the environment: FOEN publishes overview of current knowledge

Bern, 14.05.2020 - Plastics do not belong in the environment. Nevertheless, around 14,000 tonnes of plastics end up in Switzerland's soil and waters every year – primarily due to the abrasion and decomposition of plastic products and improper disposal of plastic waste. On 14 May 2020, the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) published an overview of the environmental pollution caused by plastics. As a next step, the FOEN, together with the industries affected, will propose measures to reduce this pollution. The Swiss parliament has approved a number of initiatives on the subject of plastics.

Large quantities of plastics are used in Switzerland. Every year, one million tonnes of plastics are processed - whether as short-lived products such as packaging or disposable tableware, or to manufacture goods with a longer lifespan such as window frames or car body parts - and 780,000 tonnes are disposed of. To date, little research has been done into the impact of this plastic use on the environment.

On behalf of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), the consulting firm Ernst Basler + Partner has compiled an overview report based on studies already carried out (see link). The report identifies the main sources of plastics in the Swiss environment; it also shows how plastics enter the environment and what existing measures are retaining them. In addition, the report presents the currently known potential impacts of plastics on humans and animals (see box).

Based on this study, the FOEN estimates that around 14,000 tonnes of plastics end up in Switzerland's soil and waters every year. The largest proportion comes from tyre abrasion (around 8,000 tonnes), followed by littering (around 2,700 tonnes) and other sources.

New web page and factsheets

The FOEN has summarised the key knowledge on environmental pollution caused by plastics in a series of ten factsheets on the following topics: tyre abrasion, littering, rivers and lakes, soil, air, oceans, humans and animals, plastic packaging, plastics in biowaste collections and biodegradable plastics. There is also a new web page providing information about the main quantities of plastics and material flows in the environment.

Reducing the input of plastics into the environment as far as possible

Since plastics accumulate in the environment and only degrade very slowly, the environmental pollution caused by plastics must be reduced as far as possible in accordance with the precautionary principle. There are also knowledge gaps that need to be closed regarding the degradation and behaviour of plastics in the environment and the possible long-term consequences of plastic pollution for living organisms and humans.

Based on this overview, the FOEN will implement the many parliamentary initiatives on the subject of plastics. In particular, the ESPEC-N motion 'Less plastic waste in waters and soil' demands that the Confederation, together with the industries affected, propose measures to reduce environmental pollution caused by plastics. At the same time, the FOEN is monitoring the EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. To reduce plastic pollution in the environment, waste avoidance should be improved and plastic products refined so that they can be recycled more effectively.

BOX - Plastics in the environment: sources, pathways, retention mechanisms and sinks
The biggest sources of microplastics (particles smaller than 5 mm) are the abrasion and decomposition of plastic products, mainly car tyres, plastic films and other products used in construction and agriculture. Microplastics, which are deliberately added to products (e.g. exfoliants) or reach waste water due to fibre abrasion from the washing of synthetic textiles, primarily pollute surface waters. Macroplastics (particles larger than 5 mm and plastic waste) mainly reach the environment through littering and incorrect disposal of plastic products. For example, the improper disposal of plastic packaging and bags in biowaste is a major source of plastics in soil. If macroplastics are not removed, they gradually decompose into microplastics. In addition, plastics enter soil and waters in rainwater and via the air - or enter rivers and streams in untreated waste water. Significant amounts of plastics can be retained thanks to waste disposal and cleaning of public spaces, road drainage and waste water treatment. According to present knowledge, many more plastics end up on and in soil than in waters.

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