How To Fight Microplastics?
It is evident that around the globe humanity struggles with enormous amounts of plastic waste; 300 million tonnes dispose every year, 10 million tonnes of which end up in our oceans. But it is not what we can see that should concern us the most. Tiny plastic particles, known as microplastics can be found in air, rain, drinking water, food, and even in our placentas. It is detected in the deepest oceans’ parts as well as in Arctic ice cores. In a bunch of low-success research, difficulties, and bad news about microplastics, can new approaches involving ferrofluids, living vacuum cleaners and cellulose nets be the promising ways to fight it?
Although the World Health Organization still does not denote microplastics as a threat to human health, concerns and evidences in the opposite direction rise every day. To blame plastics? Certainly, no. For the sake of easier everyday life, we use plastic uncontrollably and despite the rising recycling and shifting to (bio)degradable plastic materials, it is unstoppably introduced into the environment. Now it is the time to make a big effort to prevent further disposal and to eliminate microplastics from nature. So where is the problem? The main issues arise from the size. For example, about 700,000 microplastic fibres are released on average from one load of laundry. Because they are less than a millimetre in length, they easily pass through filtration systems and end up in water flows and thereby enter the food chain. Besides, microplastics in general have low density and high durability that makes it a chief cross-border contaminant. The other issues of concern are related to the strong potential of microplastics for releasing harmful chemicals (monomers, additives, etc.) as well as to its extraordinary capacity for adsorbing/accumulating other environmental pollutants. Namely, microplastics can potentially adsorb and transport toxic compounds and carry bacteria and viruses.
Here’s how innovators are handling the crisis.
Fionn Ferreira, a young researcher from Groningen University, came up with the idea to “magnetized out” microplastic from the water. He spotted that oil spill residue could attract the plastics from water. Thereby trapped plastics should be somehow removed from water, so he used the mix of vegetable oil and powdered rust to create a ferrofluid and attract microplastics by/to it. Afterwards, he was able to remove the microplastics with a magnet. The use of a cheap, simple, and scalable method as well as high efficiency of his experiment (87%), opened the opportunities for funding, further research and scale up. Additionally, this approach is not applicable solely to the removal of the existing microplastics, but can be applied to prevent more plastic from entering the watercourses. To provide this Ferreira works on the development of devices that could remove microplastics from continuous water flows. He aims to use them in wastewater treatment facilities, in households to clean the water when it enters and leaves the houses, as well as in ships’ engines that can clean the water used for their cooling during the sailing.
Another enthusiastic approach to fight microplastics involved the use of the so- called “living vacuum cleaners”. The aim is to stimulate the communities of bacteria to evolve and break down the plastic. While this research is in its early stage yet, the use of nanocellulose based filters created by scientists at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has already attracted industry interest. Namely, the porous, mesh-like, structure of nanocellulose filters generate capillary forces when put in water that draw the microplastics (including nanoplastics, with diameters smaller than 0.1 microns) into the mesh and retain them there. This concept uses the most abundant organic compound on the planet-cellulose and provides the capturing of microplastics at the places it is generated.