The fight against plastic pollution is urgent. Scientists and innovators have turned their attention towards finding a viable solution to clean our oceans. Will science manage to clean up our mess with microbes and bacteria-sized robots?
How big is the problem?
While bigger plastic elements can be easily found and potentially removed, microplastics present a bigger challenge. These tiny plastic fragments are usually smaller than 5 millimetres across.
Microplastics are found in all plastic products, from our grocery bags, plastic bottles, beauty products and synthetic textiles such as nylon, polyester, acrylic and elastane. They are released in our environment during the production and breaking down of plastic, as well as everyday activities such as washing clothes or using personal care products with microbeads.
All of these microplastics wash into rivers and oceans. We find them everywhere, from our urban environments to pristine wilderness; in the deepest part of the oceans and in the Artic Sea ice.
There were between ‘15 and 51 trillion microplastic particles floating at the ocean’s surface from the poles to the equator’, according to research published in 2015 by the Society of Oceanography*.
An invisible and ubiquitous threat
We inhale microplastics and probably eat them too. Adults and babies stools are loaded with microplastics, according to a recent pilot study published by The American Chemical Society in September 2021*, founding 10 times more PET in babies’ faeces than adults.
In fact, “it’s almost certain that there is a level of exposure in just about all species,” says Tamara Galloway, ecotoxicologist at the University of Exeter, UK.
Microplastics will take decades or more to degrade fully.
'Consequence of plastic pollution are practically irreversible’, says Matthew MacLeod, with potential including ‘changes to carbon and nutrient cycles; habitat changes within soils, sediments, and aquatic ecosystems; co-occurring biological impacts on endangered or keystone species; ecotoxicity; and related societal impacts'.
Fashion pollution and synthetic fibres
A study led by Steer et al in 2017* found that ‘2.9% of fish larvae collected in the western English Channel that had ingested microplastic, the majority of which were microfibres’.
Fibres seem to be a particular problem, confirmed Australian researchers. The fibres interfered with swimming, and scientists identified deformations in the organisms.
'The cost of ignoring the accumulation of persistent plastic pollution in the environment could be enormous. The rational thing to do is to act as quickly as we can to reduce emissions of plastic to the environment’, says MacLeod.
Scientists are innovating to tackle microplastic pollution
The American Chemical Society has recently published the findings of a proof-of-concept* from the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague, Czech Republic, detailing how hybrid self-propelled microrobots can swim, attach to plastics and break them down.’’
The Hong-Kong Polytechnique, on the other hand, is studying the possibility of using bacteria to capture and destroy microplastic. A biofilm made of sticky bacteria could be used to make tiny microbe nets that can trap microplastics. The biofilm can then be processed, releasing the microplastics which can then also be processed and recycled.
Address the root causes of plastic pollution now
Scientific innovations will help address microplastic pollution already present in our seas and oceans. It is, however, vital that governments, manufacturers and brands act to avoid polluting our environment in the first place. They need to promote circularity and design products made from natural or recycled materials, and made to last.
The true change will come from industry leaders and textile innovation. Although the financial burden shouldn’t rest on consumers’ shoulders, we can help mitigate the negative impacts of our lifestyle and everyday fashion habits.
Buy clothes made from natural fibres. Wash your clothes less often and brush off your stains instead.
Innovative solutions have also come onto the market recently.
Slovenia-based Planetcare has developed a new microfiber filter that captures up to 90% of microfibers. And Germans Guppyfriend has patented a washing bag technology that captures microfibers during the wash cycle. It almost goes without saying but bring your own bag whenever there is an option available, from grocery shopping to dry-cleaning.
As David Attenborough recently said during the COP26, “A new industrial revolution powered by millions of sustainable innovations is essential…and is indeed already beginning…we will all share in the benefits…”
Learn more about the recent scientific pilot studies and advancements on microplastics:
*References and Sources:
- Environ. Pollut., 226 (2017), pp. 250-259, Steer et al., 2017
- A Maze in Plastic Wastes: Autonomous Motile Photocatalytic Microrobots against Microplastics