What comes to your mind when you think of plastic waste? The great plastic garbage patch, cooldrink bottles, polybags, and other huge chunks of plastics pilled up in the dumpster and floating into the ocean. Right? But, the biggest danger lurking in front of us is not from this plastic, but the one that is causing destruction at a much bigger scale and cannot be seen with the naked eye; Microplastics.
Microplastics are reasonably one of the biggest problems standing ahead of us, and we know for sure that it will be much more problematic in the coming future. But, first, what exactly is microplastic? Why is that such a big concern? And what are the ways to deal with it?
What are Microplastics?
The story begins with macro plastics, all of the plastic you can see from plastics bags to bigger plastic junks. When these plastics get beaten up into smaller and smaller pieces, it ultimately becomes microplastic. They are pieces of plastic that are less than 5-mile meters in diameter.
The major source of microplastics are nurdles, which are pre-production pallets of plastics, and are the building block of all the larger plastic products. Nurdles are manufactured in colossal quantities and shipped around the world. But, they are not alone responsible for the nano form of the deadly chemical composition resulting in numerous problems. Once macroplastic escape the recycling or waste management cycle, it degrades to form microplastics over time.
Around the world, humans are producing over 300 million tons of plastic waste manually. An estimated 10 million tonnes make their way to the oceans, i.e., equal to a full truckload of rubbish every minute. Marine debris has been building up in every ocean for years. Plastics escape the solid waste management pipelines. Those which should be in the recycling or land fields, but instead, are floating into the water bodies.
The worsening problem
As of December 2020, plastics are found in every single part of the world, even at Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, visited by only two humans to date. Microplastic, the more stubborn and hard to eradicate form of plastic, is present in the tiny marine ecosystems and inside the living organisms. The chemical additives in the microplastic all end up in the flesh of both animals and humans.
Furthermore, in the coming years, the problem is projected to get worse. By 2030, plastic production is estimated to surge by 60%, while by 2050, the production rate and quantity will increase thrice. The higher the plastic, the higher it gets entangled into sea creatures and ocean ecosystems, say the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
All the plastic, regardless of its shape, is detrimental, but the threat possessed by the minuscule-sized plastic is especially concerning. Given that microplastics are present in everything from our clothes to the water we drink removing omnipresent microplastics from the environment is definitely challenging. However, though microplastic is clogging the ocean ecosystem, it does not have any harmful effects on the human body, says World Health Organisation.
Removing Microplastics: The Innovative Solutions
The Young Inventor
Fionn Ferreira, a 20-year old Irish inventor, found an incredible way to remove microplastic from the water bodies. The idea is to encourage clumping the microplastics into a compound or magnetizing the microplastic in the young inventor’s context.
In over 5,000 tests, Fionn’s model proved to be 87% effective. Currently, Ferreira is working on a magnetic extraction method that uses water flowing past a device to collect microplastics. Plastic fragments will be continuously removed from water pipes by the small device as it flows through them. The young scientist is also working on a ship-mounted extraction system for plastic waste in the oceans.
Upon presenting his innovative idea at the Google Science Fair in 2019, Ferreria won a scholarship of $50,000. Ferrearia aims to test his plan to make a device with a self-cleaning filter to clean the ocean water from microplastics. Fionn says, “It could be built into the already existing water intake, and outlets of the ships used to cool the engines, so as they’re taking in the water and as they’re driving around the oceans, they could be cleaning the water that passes through those engines.”
New Solutions to Eradicate Microplastics
Over the past few years, many NGOs, research institutes, and environmental activist organizations are working towards making the ocean microplastic-free for years. For example, Finland’s VTT Technical Research Center has successfully developed a new plant-derived water filter made of nanocellulose mesh.
The minute size of Nano plastics – as small as 0.1 micrometers – has long made them impossible to remove from both drinking and wastewater. Their accumulation in human tissues and other organisms has been studied. But hopefully, they have got their match. The plant-derived water filter can bind the nano plastic without the use of any mechanical or chemical interaction, says research professor Tekla Tammelin.