On the Hunt for Plastic Litter

Dr Melanie Bergmann, biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute.


Marine Litter


Over the past few decades, plastic pollution has become a problem of global concern. It is primarily caused by a growing global production of plastic and a lack of appropriate waste management strategies. Although all habitats on Earth are affected by plastic residues – from the atmosphere, to lakes, rivers, oceans and soils – it remains unclear where most of the plastic accumulates and what consequences this has for the ecosystem and for humans. This is particularly true when it comes to microplastic, since sunlight, mechanical abrasion and temperature fluctuations cause larger pieces of plastic to disintegrate into ever-smaller particles over time. When they reach a size of five millimetres, they are referred to as microplastic, the tiny constituents of which can be ingested by a wider range of organisms in much greater amounts than larger pieces.  At the AWI, we are developing new methods for detecting plastic litter and microplastic in the environment and reliably measuring the levels. Furthermore, we are investigating the contamination of various habitats with plastic residues and its impact on organisms. We translate the data collected by us and other scientists in easy-to-understand distribution maps and graphics on the online portal LITTERBASE, so that they are available to the general public.