Institute of Rural Studies

Deputy Director


Anja Herkner

Bundesallee 64
38116 Braunschweig
Phone: +49 531 596 5501
Fax: +49 531 596 5599

Institute of Rural Economics

Deputy Director

  • NN

Microplastic in the environment – Analyses of the Warnow catchment


Plastic mulch used for growing strawberries (c) Gabriele Planthaber
Plastic mulch used for growing strawberries (© Gabriele Planthaber

Analysing Microplastics Sinks and Sources from a typical Catchment area to the open Baltic

Microplastic pollution in the oceans is increasing worldwide. High concentrations found at the mouth of rivers suggest a substantial contribution of contamination from inland. To what extent is agriculture responsible for these inputs?

Background and Objective

To date, microplastic research is mainly restricted to oceans. Studies are missing that elucidate the connections between contaminations across multiple ecosystems. Plastic tarps used in agriculture, or microplastic entering the field with application of sewage sludge and fermentation residues, can accumulate in the soil and erode into surface waters.

In the exemplary Warnow river catchment (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern),  this collaborative project funded by the Federal Mistry of Education and Research will identify microplastic sources and sinks on land and in surface waters. The use of models will help quantify relevant pathways into the open Baltic. In a sub-project, the Thünen Institute approaches the aim to estimate spatial distributions of microplastics on fields and field margins and to identify pollution hot spots. Eventually these results will be used to infer potential mitigation measures.


In a first step, a land use analysis will identify areas or regions that are contaminated with microplastic due to their historical land use. Regulative reporting data, statistic data and expert information will be used amongst others. Microplastic concentrations in sewage sludge and compost are derived from literature data and from measurements carried out in the project. The modelling approach provides the expected microplastic concentrations in soils originating from agricultural use only. Other sources, such as improper disposal (littering) and tyre wear, are not considered in this model.

Then, we will analyse selected soil samples from the catchment area on their microplastic amounts and characteristics. The results serve to put the model outcome into context and to gain information about the relevance of non-agricultural sources. The spatially explicit results will feed into a hydrogeological model that quantifies the pathways into surface waters.

The work in MicroCatch_Balt is conducted in direct cooperation with the partner project PLAWES.

Our Research Questions

What are the relevant sources and sinks of microplastic associated with agriculture?

Do non-agricultural sources, such as plastic litter in road side ditches, play a role?

How can input pathways be characterized, e.g., do lakes act as a sink?


Involved Thünen-Partners

Involved external Thünen-Partners


8.2017 - 4.2021

More Information

Projekt type:
Project status: finished

Publications to the project

hits: 3

  1. Tagg A, Brandes E, Fischer F, Fischer D, Brandt J, Labrenz M (2021) Agricultural application of microplastic-rich sewage sludge leads to further uncontrolled contamination. Sci Total Environ:in Press, DOI:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.150611
  2. Brandes E, Henseler M, Kreins P (2021) Identifying hot-spots for microplastic contamination in agricultural soils - a spatial modelling approach for Germany. Environ Res Lett 16(10):104041, DOI:10.1088/1748-9326/ac21e6
    pdf document (limited accessibility) 1475 kb
  3. Brandes E (2020) Die Rolle der Landwirtschaft bei der (Mikro-)Plastik-Belastung in Böden und Oberflächengewässern. Mitt Fachgruppe Umweltchemie Ökotoxikol Gesellsch Dt Chemiker 26(4):111-114