Did you know that on average you eat and inhale 70,000 plastic particles each year?
These very tiny plastic particles are killing more than 1 million people each year. There are also 100,000 of these cute marine creatures that die each year:
Sooo … every year 8 million tons of plastics enter our oceans. Basically, that’s like having a truckload of plastics like this dumped into our oceans every minute:
BUT you see the thing is that these precious plastics that we are using every day don’t biodegrade in the oceans. Instead, they break into smaller and smaller pieces. When combined with microplastics, such as microbeads in personal care products, released directly into waterways, the majority of plastics in the ocean are less than 5 millimeters in size (less than 1/4 inch).
Then these tiny microplastics and the chemicals that attach to them in the water can contaminate the food chain, including seafood products which are eaten by us.
Now you might be thinking that these microplastics are coming from plastics like bottles or our Starbucks drinks but they’re also coming from our clothing.
Yep, fleece and synthetic clothing shed microplastics into the water with each washing. In fact, a fleece jacket sheds about 2,000 pieces of plastic per washing. Wastewater treatment plants don’t have the ability to screen these tiny pieces, meaning they end up in both the discharged water and the sludge that is composted.
These microplastics look a bit like this (except not as pretty):
What Are Microplastics?
Microplastics comprise of tiny fibres from nylon clothes and other synthetic items. They can also come from fragments of larger plastic items that have broken down in the natural environment.
Plastic particles smaller than 5 millimetres are generally considered to be microplastic.
Well, it’s also likely that microplastics continue breaking down even past 10nm.
The smaller the size of the plastic particles, the more likely they are to cross biological barriers (such as cell membranes) and cause tissue damage.
How do these Microplastics Enter the Environment?
- When plastics or synthetic item get littered, they start to break down.
- The sun, wind, rain, and other natural factors help to break these plastics down.
- These broken-down plastic particles get swept by rain into lakes, rivers, sewers, etc. Eventually, the microplastics will make it into the ocean (or another large body of water).
But that’s not all…
Microplastics have also been found in the air that we breathe.
One way that microplastics can get into the air is through our clothing. When cloth fibres come apart from synthetic fabric, they can hang in the air and float along with it.
Another way that microplastics enter the environment is through water that passes through your home. For ex., in a washing machine, small particles from clothing is rubbed off after every wash. These particles get into your home’s wastewater, which is then released into a wastewater treatment system.
Plastic microbeads from some hygiene and cosmetics products (like body wash) can also get mixed with your home wastewater, which is again then also released into a wastewater treatment system.
Humans consuming Microplastics
1. Through Contaminated Seafood
Microplastic consumption focused on seafood. These plastic particles in the marine environment are eaten by plankton, which are then eaten by fish. The plastic particles continue to work their way up the food chain until they reach our dinner plates.
This is what you see:
But this is actually what you’re eating:
But, there might be a bigger problem…
2. OH YEAH … Through Household Dust and Air
Around, 114 pieces of microplastic settle on a dinner plate during the 20 minute duration of a meal, adding up to anywhere between 13,000 and 68,000 pieces per year.
And when you breathe in air, you could be breathing in the microscopic plastic particles as well.
3. Through Drinking Water
We already know that microplastics can be found in oceans, lakes, and other water sources.
So, what makes us certain that our drinking water is free of toxic plastics? The truth is, we aren’t.
A company tested 259 bottles of water including big names like Aquafina, Nestle Pure Life, Dasani, Evian, and others.
What they found was not good at all…
Out of all the 259 bottles tested, 93% contained some sort of microplastic particles.
The tests found that for particles that were 100 microns (0.1 millimetres) or larger, there was an average of 10.4 plastic particles per litre of water.
That level of microplastics in bottled water was double the level found in tap water (based on a similar study conducted by Orb in 2017).
But that’s not even the scariest part:
The findings suggest that if you drink one litre of bottled water per day, you could be consuming tens of thousands of microplastic particles each year. Quick Plug: highly recommend you read the report on Orb’s website it really puts things into perspective!!
Nanocoating to harnesses sunlight = degrade microplastics
Microplastics are a major environmental issue mainly because of their distribution, uncontrolled environmental occurrences, small sizes and long lifetimes.
Current methods include filtration and some advanced oxidation processes such as ozonation but these methods require high energy or generate unwanted by-products.
There was research done where they tested the degradation of fragmented, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) microplastic residues (a very flexible material with very unique flow properties used in shopping bags).
The reaction was monitored using Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy, dynamic mechanical analyser and optical imaging.
Results show a 30% increase of the carbonyl index of residues, an increase of brittleness. The degree of oxidation was directly proportional to the catalyst surface area. This could be a possible mechanism for polyethylene degradation.
How does it work?!
Existing approaches for handling waste plastic materials are thermal, catalytic, mechanical, and chemical. Photocatalysis (activity occurring when a light source interacts with the surface of semiconductor materials or photocatalysts) are the most inexpensive and energy efficient for polymer degradation.
Photocatalysis is a light-mediated process in which these nanostructured semiconductors are activated with light energy to the creation of exciton pairs, which react with surrounding water/moisture to produce highly reactive species like superoxides and hydroxyl radicals which can oxidize polymers.
Photodegraded low-density polyethylene films
Cracks and spots on the low-density polyethylene (LDPE) film was visible. Chromophoric groups, manufacturing defects and weak links act as initiation sites for the oxidation process, in turn leading to degradation of the molecular bonds. Few cracks observed on the control LDPE film could also be introduced from manufacturing processes:
Photocatalytic degradation Indications
This is a bit more science-y but still with me here.
The degradation of microplastic fragments can work in low-density polyethylene film (LDPE) in water using visible light excited heterogeneous ZnO photocatalysts. Photocatalytic LDPE oxidation led to formation of low molecular weight compounds like hydroperoxides, peroxides, carbonyl, resulting in increased brittleness along with wrinkles, cracks and cavities on the LDPE surface.
Then, Catalyst surface area was found to be important towards enhancing the LDPE degradation.
New Clean Tech for Microplastic Pollution?!
These new methods of degrading microplastic from our environment will definitely become a new clean technology for addressing the global microplastic pollution with reduced by-products.
This means no more fish with plastics!! Just kidding. Well yes, but also this will help solve the global issue of pollution which is affecting our marine animals, and oceans the most.
Hi. I’m Alishba.
I’m so excited to be working in the space of clean energy using Nanotechnology for the next few months. I’d love to connect with you and chat more about the tech + research I’m doing. Feel free to reach out!