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The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy.
This paper identifies knowledge gaps on the sustainability and impacts of plastics and presents some recommendations from an expert group that met at a special seminar organised by the European Commission at the end of 2018. The benefits of plastics in society are unquestionable, but there is an urgent need to better manage their value chain. The recently adopted European Strategy for Plastics stressed the need to tackle the challenges related to plastics with a focus on plastic litter including microplastics. Microplastics have been detected mainly in the marine environment, but also in freshwater, soil and air. Based on today’s knowledge they may also be present in food products. Although nanoplastics have not yet been detected, it can be assumed that they are also present in the environment. This emerging issue presents challenges to better understand future research needs and the appropriate immediate actions to be taken to support the necessary societal and policy initiatives. It has become increasingly apparent that a broad and systematic approach is required to achieve sustainable actions and solutions along the entire supply chain. It is recognised that there is a pressing need for the monitoring of the environment and food globally. However, despite the number of research projects increasing, there is still a lack of suitable and validated analytical methods for detection and quantification of micro- and nanoplastics. There is also a lack of hazard and fate data which would allow for their risk assessment. Some priorities are identified in this paper to bridge the knowledge gaps for appropriate management of these challenges. At the same time it is acknowledged that there is a great complexity in the challenges that need to be tackled before a really comprehensive environmental assessment of plastics, covering their entire life cycle, will be possible.