22. July 2022

How much plastic do soils contain? How much plastic do soils contain?

Soil scientist Dr. Melanie Braun receives 50,000 euros from the University of Bonn for her innovative project

Not only in the sea, but also in our soils there is "invisible" plastic - nanoplastics to be precise. This is a problem because it can be absorbed by plants and thus enter the food chain. But how much of such plastic is actually hiding in the soil? To find out, Dr. Melanie Braun from the University of Bonn wants to develop a new method. For her innovative project, the junior scientist has now received the Klaus Töpfer Research Prize worth 50,000 euros, which is awarded internally by the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Innovation and Technology for Sustainable Futures" (TRA Sustainable Futures) at the University of Bonn. The prize was named after Prof. Dr. Klaus Töpfer, former Federal Minister for the Environment and pioneer of climate policy, who was a guest at the award ceremony.

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For the first time, the TRA Sustainable Futures at the University of Bonn has awarded the Klaus Toepfer Research Prize honoring excellent ideas from sustainability research. "The innovative and transdisciplinary character of a project is the most important prerequisite for being selected for funding," says TRA speaker Prof. Dr. Joachim von Braun. "Melanie Braun's project fits perfectly with our focus on modeling, foresight and risk assessment capacity, as it provides for the first time data on soil pollution by nanoplastics that can later be used for forecasting and other purposes."

The Transdisciplinary Research Area receives support from Klaus Töpfer, who donates his name to the award. A former federal minister for the environment and executive director of the United Nations Environmental Program, he maintains a long-standing friendly relationship with the University of Bonn, where he was, among other things, the first chair of the International Advisory Board of the Center for Development Research (ZEF).

At the award ceremony, he now emphasized: "We are currently experiencing a turning point in time with many crises taking place in parallel. Science has an enormous role to play in finding solutions for overcoming these crises." Innovative science, he said, is about being open to change and not defending yesterday's results to the last. "In the question of how we can still feed the growing world population in the future, research on soil is immensely important," he says.

Determination of very small plastic in the soil

Melanie Braun has been working on the analysis of plastics in soil, ever since she completed her doctorate at the Institute of Crop Sciences and Resource Conservation (INRES) at the University of Bonn. "There has been evidence that soils receive plastic input, mainly by agricultural practices like application of sewage sludge and compost as well as irrigation with wastewater," she explains. "As soils are one of the most important bases of our food production, there is an urgent need to investigate the prevalence of colloidal and nano-sized plastics in soil, to adequately safeguard worlds food production."

Until now, however, it has not been possible to quantify such small pieces of plastic in soil. With the help of the Klaus Töpfer Research Award, Melanie Braun now wants to develop an analytical method for this. In the coming years, fluorescent dyes should make it possible to first identify different types of plastic and then determine their quantity.

Transdisciplinary research at the University of Bonn

No scientific discipline alone can answer major societal challenges and the complex questions they raise. This is an idea that the University of Bonn took as an opportunity to establish six university-wide Transdisciplinary Research Areas (TRA) with different thematic focuses two as part of its excellence strategy. One of these is the Transdisciplinary Research Area “Sustainable Futures". It networks and promotes researchers from different disciplines and faculties in order to jointly work on institutional, science- and technology-based innovations for sustainability.

Award ceremony
Award ceremony - The award winner Dr. Melanie Braun with Prof. Dr. Klaus Töpfer (r.), former ferdeal minister of the environment, and Prof. Dr. Joachim von Braun (l.), speaker of the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Sustainable Futures". © Barbara Frommann/ University of Bonn
Award ceremony
Award ceremony - Soil scientist Dr. Melanie Braun and Prof. Dr. Klaus Töpfer, who gave his name to the Klaus Töpfer Research Prize of the University of Bonn. © Barbara Frommann/ University of Bonn
Award ceremony
Award ceremony - Soil scientist Dr. Melanie Braun with Rector Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Michael Hoch (l.) and Prof. Dr. Klaus Töpfer (center). © Barbara Frommann/ University of Bonn

Dr. Daniel Minge
Manager TRA Sustainable Futures
Universität Bonn
Tel: 49 175/103 89 57
E-Mail: tra6@uni-bonn.de

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