Recycling can generate large amounts of microplastics: Study
The plastics industry has championed recycling as a critical solution to the rising problem of plastic waste. However, a research found that recycling itself may be producing massive amounts of microplastics.
An international team of experts collected wastewater from a cutting-edge recycling plant in an unknown site in the United Kingdom. They discovered that microplastics discharged into the water accounted for 13 per cent of all plastic processed, as reported by the Guardian.
Based to their estimates, the plant might be emitting up to 75 billion plastic particles every cubic metre of effluent.
“I was incredibly shocked,” said Erina Brown, the lead researcher of the study, conducted at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
“It’s scary because recycling has been designed in order to reduce the problem and to protect the environment. This is a huge problem we’re creating,” she told the Guardian.
The researchers analysed the water before and after the facility installed a water filtration system and discovered that the filter decreased microplastic concentrations from 13 per cent to 6 per cent of the plastic processed.
The estimate of 75 billion particles per cubic metre is for a plant with a filter. Brown stated that the bulk of the particles were less than 10 microns, or around the diameter of a human red blood cell, with more than 80 per cent being smaller than five microns.
Where else have microplastics been found?
Microplastics, defined as any plastic particle less than 5mm in size, have been discovered everywhere from freshly fallen snow in Antarctica to the depths of the ocean, and can be hazardous to animals and plants.
The findings also found a significant concentration of microplastics in the air near the recycling plant, with 61% of the particles being smaller than 10 millimetres in size. Human illness has been connected to particulate matter smaller than 10 millimetres.
Brown described the facility as a "best case scenario" since it had taken attempts to incorporate water filtering, something many other recycling companies may not have done.
According to the research, the recycling facility emitted up to 2,933 metric tonnes of microplastics per year before the filtering system was installed, and up to 1,366 metric tonnes thereafter.
“More than 90% of the particles we found were under 10 microns and 80% were under 5 microns,” said Brown.
“These are digestible by so many different organisms and found to be ingested by humans," she added.
Only around 9 per cent of the 370 million metric tonnes of plastic generated globally is recycled.
Microplastics are, as the name suggests are small plastic particles. Officially, they are described as plastics with a diameter of less than five millimetres (0.2 inches)—smaller in diameter than a normal pearl used in jewellery. Microplastics are classified into two types: the primary and secondary, as per National Geographic.
Microfibers shed from clothes and other fabrics, such as fishing nets, are examples of primary microplastics. Secondary microplastics are particles that form when bigger plastic products, such as water bottles, degrade. This disintegration is produced by exposure to environmental elements, including sunlight and ocean waves.