When it comes to microplastics, there is rarely good news. Researchers continue to find the tiny pieces of plastic everywhere.
Microplastics have been found in rain, Arctic Ice cores, within fish we eat, as well as in fruits and vegetables. New research suggests that 136,000 tons of microplastics are expelled from the ocean each year and end up in the air we breathe. They are in human placentas, our sewage water, and ours drinking water.
All plastic waste, regardless of its size, is harmful to the environment, but microplastics pose a special challenge given their miniscule size (some are 150 times smaller than a human hair) and their ability to enter the food chain. The result is that chemical additives and all end up in the meat and organs of fish and humans. While the World Health Organization position Is that the ingestion of microplastics does not pose a known threat to human health, not everyone agrees.
“I think we know enough today to care about that,” says Dr. Douglas Radar, chief oceans scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. noting that many microplastics contain chemicals linked to hormonal and reproductive disorders and cancer.
But it is not all bad news. Some are now innovating in extraction of microplastics, providing the basis for a touch of cautious optimism. Below are several examples of what is being done.
A microplastic magnet
One way to remove microplastics from water is to encourage them to clump together into compounds that can be filtered or, in the context of 20-year-olds Irish inventor Fionn FerreriaWork, magnetized.
Ferreria created a homemade ferrofluid, a magnetic mixture of oil and oxide powder, and used it successfully to remove 88% of microplastics from water samples. Ferreria’s efforts earned him the top award at the 2019 Google Science Fair. He hopes to incorporate his findings into a device compatible with existing filtration systems, such as those in wastewater treatment plants (most of which are unable to filter sufficiently microplastics).
In the future, he plans to test whether he could use the device to make a self-cleaning filter for ocean engines. “It could be integrated into existing water intakes and outlets on ships that are used to cool the engines, so that as they absorb water and drive through the oceans, they could be cleaning the water that passes those engines.” He says. (In Fall 2020, Suzuki Motor Corporation Announced plans to fit a microplastic filter into his boat’s outboards using similar logic.)
Using bottom feeders like “living vacuum cleaners “
Dr. Juan-José Alava, an expert in ecotoxicology and marine conservation, believes that the answer to the problem of microplastics could already be in the environment. Alava studies organisms he calls “living vacuums,” including those that feed on the bottom, such as sea cucumbers, as well as the much smaller organisms that make up “epiplastic microbial communities” – strains of bacteria capable of breaking down synthetic material, some of which originally evolved to metabolize naturally occurring polymers like lignin and wax, and others that evolved to eat plastic garbage specifically.
“The idea is to identify communities of bacteria and try to improve them, not by incorporating a new mix of genes created by humans, but by stimulating them to break down the plastic,” he says. When an organism can eliminate more plastic than it accumulates in its body or waste, it becomes “our best ally” in the fight against microplastics, says Alava.
A screen that can trap ‘plastic dust’
Marc Ward first became concerned about microplastics more than 15 years ago while studying threats to wild sea turtle populations in Costa Rica. Not only did the turtles swallow toxic microplastics, but the secluded beaches they nested on were littered with plastic particles.
Ward began inspecting beaches both in South America and near his home on the Oregon coast, sifting through the sand with a static-charged screen capable of capturing plastic particles as small as 50 microns, essentially plastic dust. In some areas, he found 10 pounds of microplastic in every square meter of beach. The final straw for Ward came when, shortly after co-authoring an article on marine plastic toxicity, he took his two-year-old son to his favorite Oregon beach only to see the boy immediately try to put a piece of plastic garbage in his mouth.
Now, Ward works with a team to filter thousands of pounds of plastic from Oregon beaches every year as part of his nonprofit, Sea Turtles Forever’s. Blue Wave Initiative.
It may be that filter cleaning sand on the beach is similar to splintering a mountain, and ocean currents can undo that job in one go, yet Ward maintains a positive outlook. “I know that we are not the solution for ocean plastics,” he admits. However, it is still mining massive amounts of plastic from the beaches.
Plant-based nets that can collect even the smallest particles.
Scientists at the VTT Technical Research Center in Finland have created a new type of water filter made from plant-based nanocellulose mesh.
Nanoplastics, as small as 0.1 microns in diameter, have long proven to be particularly difficult to remove from drinking and wastewater given their tiny size, and have been he found accumulate in the tissues of humans and other organisms.
Hopefully, they have finally met their partner. The colloidal and porous structure of cellulose allows the material to bond with nanoplastics without using any chemical or mechanical interaction, says research professor Tekla Tammelin.
The essence (that this short video on technology captures) is that cellulose filters can help researchers study nanoplastics, as well as keep them out of the water when integrated into sewage filtration systems, or even washing machines, where they could trap the tiny microfibers of synthetic clothing comprising a subset of microplastics. And while these findings are still in their infancy, the nanocellulose product has already piqued industry interest.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism