A remedy to our microplastic epidemic?


A remedy to our microplastic epidemic?

Plastics, the marvels of post–World War II lab synthesis, have reshaped our world.

Substances that are so easily and cheaply produced, with the ability to be shaped into anything, once promised a miracle solution.

But this “miracle” now lies in ruins as our environmental reality catches up with us.

In today's world, our dependence on plastics is profound and unyielding. An astonishing 350 million metric tons are produced globally each year, largely from fossil-based feedstocks sourced from Asia, where many countries grapple with the absence of efficient waste management and recycling infrastructure.

World plastics production evolution (Source)Report “Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy” (Source)

Microplastics: how bad is the situation?

Annually, about 10 million tons of synthetic polymers make their way into our oceans. It's projected that by 2050, these polymers will outnumber fish by mass. These plastics, breaking down into microscopic particles, infiltrate our ecosystems and organisms, raising grave concerns about their impact on human health and our planet's welfare.

In a groundbreaking study, a group of international scientists sampled wastewater from a brand-new recycling facility in the UK. Their findings were startling.

This facility alone could be discharging up to 75 billion microplastics (plastic fragments smaller than 5mm) per cubic meter of wastewater annually, which accounts for about 6% of the input plastic.

The concern escalates as they found that water filtration systems installed in these facilities were largely ineffective in filtering out particles smaller than 10 microns (μm).

If we extrapolate the findings from the UK facility, it suggests that plastic recycling facilities worldwide could be responsible for approximately 2 million metric tons of microplastic waste each year.

Microplastics, especially those smaller than 10 μm, can be harmful to both humans and a range of organisms, from large mammals down to tiny zooplankton.

What's more, microplastics aren't just in the water. High concentrations were found in the air around the recycling facility, where 61% of the particles were smaller than 10 μm. When inhaled, these could potentially cause interstitial lung disease and other respiratory illnesses.

The study’s findings raise questions about the health and safety of workers in these facilities and suggest that measures such as protective masks could be necessary.

Furthermore, it’s clear that the current water filtration systems are not sufficient. Regular maintenance and more advanced filtration methods could be key to limiting microplastic pollution.

Beyond plastics: moving towards alternative materials

Measures are being suggested to solve this microplastic epidemic. One notable example is the Global Plastic Treaty, which states that by the end of 2024, member states will come together to work on:

  • an internationally legally binding agreement on plastic pollution
  • an effective global standards that incentivize nations to stick to a common set of rules and regulations over plastics
  • a law to promote the use of recycled plastics rather than the continued use of virgin plastics

Better late than never, but even this global mobilization will not be enough. According to a report by the United Stations, with the best scenario of plastic recycling and reduction, by 2040, we will still end up with 216M MT of non-treated plastic waste.

Report “Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy” (Source)Report “Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy” (Source)

To put things into perspective, that’s roughly the weight of 3,48 billion adult humans.

The Global Plastic Treaty is a welcomed effort, but it’s definitely not enough. Recycling alone is not a magic bullet solution, and we can not use recycling as an excuse for our increasing use of plastics.

The good news is: there is a myriad of alternative materials to replace our dependence on plastics.

💡 Check out our 1000+ references of alternative materials here


Written by Anh N. on 06/07/2023

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