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‘More microplastics in the environment than stars in the Milky Way'

Microplastics are everywhere: in the ocean, in cooking salt and even in animals. Should that worry us? 'Yes,' said environmental scientist Thijs Bosker during a pop-up lecture in The Hague on 8 September. ‘We really need to do something now, not wait until it becomes an even bigger problem.’

‘I'm not here to give you practical tips to reduce plastics pollution,' Bosker told the visitors to the Het Circus sustainability festival. 'As a researcher, I study questions like how harmful plastics pollution is, and whether should we be doing something about it.' 

Thijs Bosker on plastics pollution during his pop-up lecture.
Thijs Bosker on plastics pollution during his pop-up lecture.

A skyscraper of plastic waste

Bosker presented some worrying numbers. Every year nine billion kilos of plastic end up in the environment; that's one and a half skyscrapers. ‘These are the large pieces of plastic. Microplastics are even worse,' he explained. 'They are so small that you can't recycle them. They get everywhere and they are there for ever.'

To study how much microplastic there is in the environment and where it is, Bosker is running a citizen science project where people throughout Europe collect sand. 'Just on the beach in Scheveningen we find thousands of pieces of microplastic for every kilo of sand. They are everywhere. There are at least five hundred times more microplastics in the environment than stars in the Milky Way.'  

Microplastics in animals

It's evident that more and more microplastics are ending up in nature, but are they dangerous? 'To answer that, we first need to know whether animals eat them,' Bosker said. This is something he is researching. 'We have seen that microplastics are eaten by animals at the bottom of the food chain, such as water fleas. The microplastics are then transferred to prawns that eat the water fleas. That's worrying.' It is not yet possible to say whether or not it is actually dangerous.   

‘Harmful or not, we have to prevent further plastics pollution,' Bosker concludes at the end of his lecture. Festival visitor Serge raises his hand: 'That's difficult because so many of the things we buy in supermarkets are packaged in plastics.' Bosker agrees. 'It's not just us as individuals who are responsible,' he says. 'The government needs to introduce more regulations. We have to work towards a circular economy.' 

Text: Iris Nijman
Images: Nicole Romijn/Leiden University
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The pop-up lecture during Het Circus was the sixth in a series of ten pop-up lectures organised this year in The Hague by Leiden University. Read more: www.universiteitleiden.nl/pop-upcolleges

Flyer on pop-up lecture on plastics pollution
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