When it comes to microplastics, there’s rarely good news. Researchers continue to find the tiny plastic fragments everywhere they look.
Microplastics have been found in rain, Arctic ice cores, inside the fish we eat, as well as in fruit and vegetables. New research suggests 136,000 tons of microplastics are ejected from the ocean each year, ending up in the air we breathe. They are in human placentas, our wastewater, and our drinking water.
All plastic waste, regardless of size, is detrimental to the environment, but microplastics pose a special challenge given their minuscule size (some are 150 times smaller than a human hair) and ability to enter the food chain. The result is that chemical additives and all end up in the flesh and organs of fish and humans. While the World Health Organization’s stance is that ingesting microplastics poses no known threat to human health, not everyone agrees.
“I think we know enough today to worry about it,” says Dr Douglas Radar, chief oceans scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, pointing out that many microplastics contain chemicals linked to reproductive and hormonal disruption and cancer.
But it’s not all bad news. Some are now innovating in microplastic extraction, providing the basis for a touch of cautious optimism. Here is a look at several examples of what is being done.
A microplastics magnet
One way to remove microplastics from water is to encourage them to clump together into compounds that can be filtered – or, in the context of 20-year-old Irish inventor Fionn Ferreria’s work, magnetized – out.
Ferreria created a homemade ferrofluid – a magnetic mixture of oil and powdered rust – and successfully used it to remove 88% of microplastics from water samples. Ferreria’s efforts won him the top prize at the 2019 Google Science Fair. He hopes to incorporate his findings into a device compatible with existing filtration systems, such as those in wastewater treatment plants (most of which are unable to sufficiently filter out microplastics).
In the future, he plans to test out whether he could use the device to make a self-cleaning filter for ocean engines. “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,” he says. (In autumn 2020, Suzuki Motor Corporation announced plans to introduce a microplastic filter into its watercraft outboard motors using similar logic.)
Using bottom feeders as “living vacuum cleaners”
Dr Juan-José Alava, an expert in marine eco-toxicology and conservation, believes the answer to…