FRIEDRICHSHAFEN, GERMANY — While Fakuma 2014 exhibitors and visitors occupied themselves with topics like molding of micro-sized plastic parts during the show in Friedrichshafen, the presence of micro-scale plastic particles several kilometers away in Lake Constance, Europe's third largest freshwater lake, is occupying the minds of politicians and research institutes, if not also environmental activists and the general public.
The ISF institute for lake research, belonging to state of Baden Württemberg's office for the environment, measurement and nature protection, is located along the lakeshore in the village of Langenargen.
Micro-plastics search has been added to one of ISF's more conventional tasks — using advanced techniques to map the structure of the lakebed. This alone is no easy task, and it illustrates the difficulty of identification and dealing with possible micro-plastic particles, due to the sheer size and depth of the lake.
The lower and upper parts of the lake have average depths of 13 meters and 101 meters, with corresponding maximum depths of 40 meters and 253 meters. With its 545-square-kilometer surface, Lake Constance has a volume of 48.4 cubic kilometers.
ISF trawled the lake with its research vessel Kormoran in October 2013 to see what it would find. ISF chief Gerhard Schröder said previous trawls had not been aimed specifically at micro-plastic particles. Florian Fauer, a researcher from the EPFL environmental laboratory at ETH Lausanne Technical University in Switzerland, was on board and took surface water and sediment samples close to the shore.
Fauer has some justification in expecting to find some micro-plastic presence, based on experience elsewhere. He explained: “Researchers were alarmed after analysis of the beaches and water of Lake Geneva in 2012. Micro plastic remains were found in all samples.”
Aside from expanded polystyrene particles, the scientists found rigid plastic parts, plastic membranes, parts of anglers' lines, as well as remains of hygiene and cosmetic products. These were at similar levels as in the Mediterranean, and ETH had intended to study fish as well for micro-plastic particles.
This is a clear sign that concerns about macro-sized and micro-scale plastic particles in the world's oceans should equally extend to inland freshwater waterways and lakes, with Lake Garda in Italy said to be another victim.
Fauer's colleague, Luiz Felippe de Alencastro, says: “We are also studying the possibility that absorbed hydrophobic pollutants on the surface of this plastic can also be liberated into the stomachs of birds and fish.”
Although the Austrian lakeside at the eastern end is much shorter, this has not prevented Austrian politicians claiming in November 2013 that 40 percent of the lakebed under Lake Constance's water is covered with plastics waste. This was stated by SPÖ party members of the Austrian parliament's upper house in Vienna, Stefan Schennach and Ewald Lindinger, to an upper house EU committee.