MICROPLASTICS:  Where are they? How do they form?

What are the sources of microplastics? How they reach oceans ? And why Ascandra is crucial when addressing this rising environmental concern?

 

 

Plastic is used nowadays in our industries, our packaging, our buildings and even our clothes.  In 2019, 460 million tonnes (Mt) of plastic were produced worldwide. Global cumulative production of plastics is forecast to reach 34 billion tons by 2050[1]. Plastic has played a major role in the industrial revolution and is  the most polarizing material of modern times, but its excessive production and consumption has also led to a large number of unfortunate circumstances .

WHAT IS PLASTIC MADE OF?

The word plastic comes from ‘plasticus’ (Latin for ‘capable of moulding’). Plastics are high molecular weight organic polymers which are composed of various atoms such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and chlorine. Most of the plastic is derived from hydrocarbons which comes from crude oil, natural gas and coal. The most common type of plastic is thermoplastic, which is made from petrochemicals, including ethylene and propylene. These materials are processed and shaped into a variety of products, such as bottles, containers etc. The plastic can be developed to have different properties such as strength, heat resistance, flexibility, and transparency by adding different chemical compounds and by varying the manufacturing process.

HOW DO MICROPLASTICS FORM?

Microplastics can  form through a variety of processes and are categorized in two different groups:

–              Primary microplastics, which are particles designed for commercial use like cosmetics, as well as microfibers, microbeads and fibers that come from clothing and other textiles. Primary microplastics are also found in air blasting technologies.

–              Secondary microplastics, which are particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles. It is considered that microplastics might further degrade to be smaller in size, becoming nanoplastics. But so far,  the smallest microplastic reportedly detected in the oceans has a diameter of 1.6 micrometres. 

In Europe, where most households are connected to waste water network, on average 25 grams per person are released every year in the water.[2] The city dust, tires, marine coatings and ordinary consumer products that end up in the ocean are also significant sources or microplastics.

Large plastic debris are subject to exposure to sunlight that will gradually fragment them into a colossal number of pieces of different sizes. Moreover, wind and waves exert mechanical stresses on them, while the oxygen in the air exerts chemical stresses by oxidation. The integrity of plastics is based on their significant molecular weight, which means that substantial degradation can weaken the material and fragilize it enough to break apart.  The fragmentation is not homogeneous: some pieces are quite large while some others are very small. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), any plastic debris smaller than 5 mm in length can be categorized as microplastics.[3] Most microplastics escape traditional water filtration systems and end up in the ocean and lakes, where they pose a threat to aquatic life.

HOW DO THEY REACH OUR OCEANS?

Recycling rates vary greatly by country and even within regions. However, some estimates suggest that globally, only  9% of plastic is recycled each year.[4] Discarded plastic materials can enter the marine environment as trash, industrial discharge, or litter via inland waterways, wastewater outflows, wind transport, and uncollected waste. A small percentage of plastic waste is incinerated, with the majority being landfilled or littered.

In fact, according to a study by the European Environmental Agency, only around 6% of plastic waste in the EU is incinerated[5] , while 27% of plastic waste ends up buried in landfills[6]  and a significant portion of it ends up in the environment, either through littering or through improper waste management. Moreover, according to a study by the United Nations, up to 80% of marine litter is plastic.[7]

In the research paper of The New Zealand oceanographer Laurent Lebreton published in Nature in 2019, it is suggested that the largest and most polluted rivers are the main factors responsible for plastic being carried to the seas. The numbers are estimated to be between 1.1 and 2.4 million tonnes every year.[8]

In recent years, scientists have found microplastics in thousands of locations. Since most of the plastic ends up in the ocean, many of the small particles get stuck into ocean whirlpools creating huge amounts of floating plastic like  the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest in the world measuring 1.6 million km2 and weighing 80,000 tonnes. Microplastics would continue to accumulate for generations from trash already in the sea. The continuous fragmentation makes it difficult for researchers to calculate exactly how many microplastics are in the ocean today. But the estimations suggest that there are between 15 and 51 trillion microplastic particles in the ocean, weighing between 93,000 and 236,000 tons.[9]

A research from 2020 estimates the number of microplastics in the Eastern Tropical Pacific to be around 112 per cubic meter

Figure 1: Microplastics Abundance in Eastern Tropical Pacific, IAEA 2020

WHY IS IT A PROBLEM?

Microplastics have been found nearly everywhere , in remote locations such as sub-Antarctic islands , the Arctic  and even in deep-sea habitats.  The biggest  issue with these microplastics is that they are resistant to Biodegradation  and could remain in the marine environment for hundreds of years, threatening the environment and biology and posing serious issues to human health . 

Considering the scope and impacts of plastic pollution, an increasing number of actors from governments, civil society and academia are calling for efforts to tackle the crisis at its source by reducing plastic production. With current and expected levels of plastic production, end-of-the-pipe solutions, such as waste management and clean-up, are unlikely to be sufficient to efficiently tackle the plastic crisis. 

 

With this in mind, Eden Tech is tackling this challenge with ASCANDRA, a new technology relying on a microfluidic system made of stacks of CDs. This new and innovative approach is aimed at filtering microplastics from water, and  is designed to be a sustainable solution inspired by nature for nature. ASCANDRA offers a promising approach to addressing the growing problem of microplastics in the water and demonstrates Eden Tech‘s commitment to finding environmentally friendly solutions to important global issues. The implementation of ASCANDRA can help reduce the amount of microplastics in the ocean and ensure a cleaner and healthier environment for future generations.

 

References

1. Geyer, Roland & Jambeck, Jenna & Law, Kara.  Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances. (2017)

2. Eunomia and ICF, Investigating options for reducing releases in the aquatic environment of microplastics emitted by (but not intentionally added in) products. (2018)

3. Arthur, Courtney; Baker, Joel; Bamford, Holly,  “Proceedings of the International Research Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects and Fate of Microplastic Marine Debris” (2009)

4. Jambeck JR, Geyer R, Wilcox C, Siegler TR, Perryman M, Andrady A, Narayan R, Law KL. Marine pollution. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science. (2015) 

5. The European Environment Agency (EEA), “Plastic waste management in Europe: A country-by-country review”  (2018).

6. Plastic waste in the environment: a review” by R.C. Thompson et al., published in Science of the Total Environment, (2009)

7. “Plastic litter in the Mediterranean Sea” by V. Savoca, et al., published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, (2014)

8. Lebreton, L., Egger, M. & Slat, B. A global mass budget for positively buoyant macroplastic debris in the ocean. Sci Rep 9, 12922 (2019).

9. Jambeck JR, Geyer R, Wilcox C, Siegler TR, Perryman M, Andrady A, Narayan R, Law KL. Marine pollution. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science. (2015) 

10. Jennet Orayeva, IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, World Oceans Day 2020: New IAEA Research Records Dramatic Increase in Microplastic Pollution in Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean

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