Source to Sea: A Swedish approach and Sweden-China cooperation on microplastics

While the environmental and health impact of plastics, such as plastic packing material and bottles, has caused a lot of attention and action for prevention and reduction, “microplastic”, i.e. small plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters long...

While the environmental and health impact of plastics, such as plastic packing material and bottles, has caused a lot of attention and action for prevention and reduction, “microplastic”, i.e. small plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters long remains far less explored and understood. Given the knowledge gap as well as the global nature of this challenge, the Swedish government attaches great importance to the prevention and mitigation of microplastics pollution both on land and in the ocean through international cooperation. As we shown in our previous blog last year, the Swedish EPA (Naturvårdsverket) launched a call for proposal for development projects aimed at sustainable plastic use and a sound management of plastic waste in the BRIICS-countries. Today, we are very proud to tell you that, among 118 applications, “Reduce microplastics load to the Yellow Sea and Bohai Sea from China” became 1 of 4 granted projects. It also means that, Sweden became the first EU Member State to initiate cooperation on microplastics with China! Almost exactly one year later, we can be very proud to show that the project has achieved fruitful results. And departing from this successful first step, the project will be further developed! Here is the success story and the promising way forward.

How it started…

The project started in a very challenging time, exactly when the Covid-19 pandemic started in China. But with the strong interest on the Chinese side for the concept of “Source-to-Sea”, developed by Swedish researchers as well as the strong commitment to introduce the knowledge and research experience to China on the Swedish side, the idea development and brainstorming among the consortium partners never stopped.

Project concept discussion at the Embassy in Beijing during the “lock-down” in February 2020
On-line project workshop between Swedish and Chinese consortium members

With the objective to understand the sources and pathways for microplastics pollution and to develop sampling techniques and prevention measures for microplastics pollution, the project gathered a strong consortium (See Figure below).

Drawing on the evidence from international studies that fibres are one of the most common microplastics found in organisms in sea water, sediment and biotas, the project has chosen waste water treatment plants (WWTPs) and the textile industry in the coastal regions of Bohai and the Yellow Sea as key targets  for observation and analysis. From both a Chinese and a global perspective, this is a very interesting and important start, as more than 60% of global textiles are synthetic fibres[1], of which 70% are produced in China.

A successful completion…

With great pleasure, the Embassy of Sweden in Beijing hosted the concluding seminar for the project on 27 April. Concrete and impressive results from the project, with joint efforts from all the partners were presented:

  • Detailed analysis of microplastics emissions in 11 WWTPs and 5 textile plants.  
  • Protocols for microplastics sampling and sample pre-treatment.
  • Best available technologies testing to find the most technically efficient and economically viable options for microplastics removal.
  • Guidelines on reduction of microplastics release from textile production and textile industrial wastewater treatment.
  • Microplastics training material for textile plants, washing machine manufacturers and laundry industries.    
  • Microplastics data-sharing platform for dissemination and communication.
Greetings and remarks by Åsa Bergérus Rensvik, Swedish EPA and Lars Brede Johansen Norwegian Retailors’ Environmental Fund
Project leader ZHU Yanjin from IVL, Beijing Office, Prof. Sun Xiaoxia from IO-CAS and Prof. Huang Wenli, from Nankai University presented the project
Fruitful exchanges and a panel discussion on the results and remaining challenges

It was really inspiring to see that the “source-to-sea” approach is not only well-received by the research and policy communities in China. Also, China’s textile industries and home appliance industries have shown a strong interest in the project.

Moving towards the next step…

It is also our great pleasure to tell that, the seminar at the Embassy was not only the conclusion of the successful project. It was also a promising start for a new project – to a have deeper focus on microplastics prevention and reduction in China’s textile industry, which will be financed by the Norwegian Retailers Environment Fund  (See Figure below).

Based on the knowledge and experience from the first project, a stronger life-cycle approach will be incorporated into the project to investigate:

  • How textile and clothing production and treatment processes can be improved for microplastics prevention and reduction.  
  • How to identify and reduce microplastics from textile industry wastewater and sludge, e.g. through an integrated approach to reducing both conventional pollutants and microplastics.   

Together with the representative from the Norwegian Retailers Environment Fund, our colleagues from the Embassy of Norway joined the project kick-off and shared the priorities of the Norwegian government in the field of sustainable management of plastics and the cooperation with China.  

A few reflections and a few words from our Ambassador to China

Last year, the Swedish Government issued a communication paper, in which sustainable water, ocean governance and sustainable consumption were highlighted as priorities for Sweden’s environmental cooperation with China. In China’s new 14th Five-Year-Plan (2021-2025), prevention and control of plastic pollution based on a life-cycle approach was highlighted as one of China’s environmental policy priorities in the coming years. Having this in mind, these two microplastics projects are indeed forerunners and are implemented just-in-time:

  • They will Introduce the new challenge of microplastics pollution into international cooperation. In Sweden, in Norway and in China, we all need more knowledge about this, based on a source-to-sea approach and through a life-cycle perspective.
  • They will support policymakers to improve regulations, technical standards and management measures, through a science-based and evidenced-based approach.
  • They will support and engage the business sector, from the textile industry and the home appliance industry at an early stage, to find innovative and practical solutions along the supply chains and based on cross-sectoral partnership and innovations.   
  • Given that China is both the largest producer and the largest consumer of textile products, the engagement of consumers and behavioural change are particularly important. Microplastics prevention and reduction will probably soon become a new and important dimension of sustainable consumption, given the environmental and health impact of microplastics.   
  • By combining the earlier research on the Baltic region and the results from the new studies in China, we see both the need for and the benefit from working together. Microplastics pollution prevention and management are global environment policy issues and require joint efforts to find efficient and long-term solutions.  

Finally, let us conclude by the following words from our Ambassador to China, Ms. Helena Sångeland when she received the research teams and our Norwegian colleagues at the end of the seminar:  

Sweden’s Ambassador Helena Sångeland received the seminar participants at the Residence.

“Both in the Nordic countries and in China, textile plays an important role in our daily lives and business life. It is not only a piece of cloth or furniture. It is an object of meaning, expressing our taste, our identity and our values. When the sense of creativity goes hand-in-hand with the awareness of responsibility and sustainability, we find a more balanced way of living and are more in tune with nature. With this shared inspiration and belief, we will carry out research, innovation and collaboration together. Supported by the fruitful exchange and cooperation, we will continue to make progress with high-quality and high-sustainability transition together…”  

Nannan Lundin, Linnea Yang, Jessica Zhang and Matilde Eng

PS: In the link below, please find our Research, Innovation Sustainability News Highlight for April 2021.

[1] Henry, B.; Laitala, K.; Klepp, I.G. Microplastic Pollution from Textiles: A Literature Review. http: // 20from%20textiles%20-%20A%20literature%20review.pdf.

Theme image source: The danger of microplastics in the oceans (