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Plastics and the Environment

Yesterday’s solutions can become today’s problems, especially if we do not think deeply about the systems we are operating in and how our perceived solutions will function in them.

Plastics have solved many problems in our modern world, but there are many unintended, negative consequences of the current patterns of plastics production and consumption. 

Plastics can off gas and leach numerous toxic chemicals (e.g. endocrine disrupting BPA, and neurotoxic flame retardants). Millions of different plastic applications contribute to our world-wide litter crisis, clogging waterways, threatening ecosystems, and entering food chains and the air we breathe as tiny particulate fragments. This all comes with high costs to society and the environment, estimated in the hundreds of billions of euros. 

From the signals we can see so far, we hypothesize that plastic particles can negatively affect public health as well. Plastics are petroleum intensive synthetic materials that are extremely persistent as environmental contaminants. Plastics worldwide are not yet effectively recycled, a small fraction of plastics worldwide is incinerated, but for the most part, these materials are not (yet) part of a circular economy and continue to accumulate in landfills and the global environment and outer space. 


E&H researchers have built an international reputation in the field of marine litter, microplastics, plastic waste and plastic additives in the environment. The group has a strong interest in:

  1. signalling and diagnosing the problems by developing and applying robust scientific methods and
  2. contributing to solutions by communicating the knowledge in a timely way that strengthens effective governance of the issues.

To achieve these goals, the group uses advanced techniques in analytical chemistry and toxicology to assess risks these complex materials and chemicals. The group also engages with stakeholders and collaborates intensively with colleagues in disciplines beyond chemistry, toxicology and health sciences to maximize the research’s impact on the efforts to tackle what UNEP, G7, EU and civil society organisations have identified as a global ecological, economic, health and aesthetic problem.


  • developing methodologies to measure and identify plastic contamination in environmental matrices
  • assessing risks of plastics and microplastics to the environment and humans
  • assessing toxic chemicals and plastic in plastic waste and recycling streams
  • merging scientific facts within interdisciplinary collaborations towards mitigation


Dr Heather Leslie / Prof. dr Dick Vethaak / Dr Sicco Brandsma


CLEANSEA: Towards a clean, litter-free European marine environment
Microplastic Projects
Plastic waste streams, toxics and the circular economy
Microplastics in the Dutch Environment
IMPACT: Analytical Development for Microplastics
Anon. An Intervention in the Anthropocene
T20 Task Force Circular Economy
Hazardous chemicals in plastic packaging
Microplastics and the North Sea ecosystem
Microplastics workshop and interlaboratory study
PETHUNT: identification and quantification of PET microfibers in marine environments
Microplastics in drinking water: a review and assessment of an emerging concern
Limnoplast: Microplastics in Europe's freshwater ecosystems
Plastic fragmentation in seawater microcosm