Written by Prabhnoor Kaur Toor, Staff Writer
Microplastics, minuscule plastic particles measuring less than five millimeters, have permeated our environment, constituting a significant and pervasive threat. These persistent pollutants can be found in our oceans, lakes, soil, air, and even our food, igniting growing concern over their long-term impact on ecosystems and potential harm to human health.
Defining Microplastics: Microplastics, as their name implies, are minute plastic particles, typically measuring less than five millimeters. They fall into two primary categories: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are deliberately created for commercial purposes, such as microbeads in cosmetics, while secondary microplastics result from the disintegration of larger plastic items like water bottles. The Canadian government banned the manufacture and import of microbeads in toiletries back in 2018.
Magnitude of the Problem: Microplastics represent a significant and widespread environmental issue. Their presence is not confined to a single ecosystem; they infiltrate various environments, including oceans, lakes, soil, and the atmosphere. Their remarkable durability and persistence in the environment have raised global concerns. In fact, many plastics that were first released into the environment in the 1900’s are still around today.
Environmental Fate of Microplastics: Microplastics can be transported by winds, water runoff, and storms, eventually finding their way into oceans and other bodies of water. Once within aquatic environments, they become targets for ingestion by marine life, leading to physical harm and digestive problems. Moreover, microplastics have a penchant for absorbing toxic substances from their surroundings, which poses long-term risks to ecosystems and human health as they integrate into the food chain.
Why Microplastics Are Problematic: The adverse impacts of microplastics are multifaceted. They cause entanglement and ingestion by marine organisms, resulting in physical harm and digestive issues. Furthermore, they act as carriers of toxic chemicals, which poses a long-term threat to ecosystems. Although the precise implications for human health are still under investigation, the presence of microplastics in our food and water sources raises concerns regarding potential ingestion and health consequences.
Banning Plastics: Several jurisdictions have taken significant strides to address plastic pollution by banning or limiting the use of single-use plastics. Notably, Canada initiated a nationwide ban on single-use plastics, encompassing items like plastic straws and bags, in 2021. In the European Union, the Single-Use Plastics Directive, effective since 2019, strives to ban or restrict various single-use plastic items, urging member states to minimize plastic waste.
Reuse & Recycle: Reusing and recycling plastics play a crucial role in mitigating plastic pollution. Recycling programs are prevalent in numerous countries and regions, encouraging the collection and recycling of plastics to extend their life cycle and reduce the necessity for new plastic production. Plastics trading markets facilitate the exchange of recycled plastics, providing economic incentives for recycling and bolstering the development of a circular economy.
Recovery – Energy Recovery: Energy recovery from plastics entails converting plastics into energy, often through incineration. While not devoid of controversy, some jurisdictions, have adopted this approach on a large scale – deeming it to be thermal recycling. Incineration reduces the volume of plastic waste in landfills and offers an alternative source of energy. However, critics contend that it may release harmful emissions and potentially discourage non-thermal recycling efforts.
INNOVATIVE MICROPLASTICS CLEANUP TECHNOLOGY
Bacterial Microbe Nets: Researchers at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University have harnessed the adhesive properties of bacteria to construct microbe nets. These bioengineered nets are adept at capturing microplastics in polluted water, creating masses that are easily disposable and recyclable. Although still in the early stages of development, this innovative solution has the potential to transform the way we combat microplastic pollution.
Electrolytic Oxidation: Researchers have devised an environmentally friendly method for breaking down microplastics using electrolytic oxidation. This chemical-free process generates hydroxyl radicals to efficiently disintegrate microplastics into non-toxic compounds. The most promising application of this technology is in commercial laundries, a major source of microplastic release.
Biodegradable Sponges: In China, researchers have introduced biodegradable sponges designed to capture microplastics and nano plastics from various liquid solutions. Comprising primarily starch and gelatin, these sponges show promise in addressing microplastic contamination across a range of environments.
Effectively addressing microplastic pollution necessitates a multifaceted approach that revolves around the principles of the 3Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Additionally, innovative technologies play a crucial role in addressing existing microplastics in our environment. The fundamental question revolves around financing microplastic cleanup, a shared responsibility among governments, industries, and consumers. Collaborative efforts are essential in crafting a sustainable model for funding cleanup initiatives, ultimately paving the way for a cleaner and healthier environment for generations to come.