Invisible yet utterly dangerous
Microplastics are tiny particles, shards of degraded plastic trash, found in cosmetic products, and microfibers coming from synthetic fabric. As the name suggests, they are very small, ranging from the nanoscale up to around five millimeters.
Marine biologist Ed Carpenter coined the term in 1972 in an article published in Science, based on his findings during a research cruise on the Sargasso Sea in the fall of 1971. Carpenter detected white spots floating together with seaweed.
Upon scrutiny, he realized that they were little pieces of plastic 550 miles from the coast. This discovery shed light on the fact that humankind is polluting the environment with visible plastic trash of which the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is being the most noted example.
Plastic products fracture into even smaller segments, infiltrating almost everywhere while remaining largely invisible. Microplastics are getting into the bodies of sea creatures like plankton and fish. Apart from the lethal consequences for those animals, there is a knock-on effect when the particles accumulate up the food chain.
Chelsea Rochman, a microplastics researcher at the University of Toronto states: ‘It’s everywhere,’ we can find it in fresh waters, in the soil, as well as floating in the air.
Locate then degrade
Nowadays, scientists and engineers are fighting microplastics together using three major techniques, such as filtration, incineration, and advanced oxidation processes. The problem is that all three methods require very high energy and leave undesired byproducts.
The new technology developed as part of an EU Horizon 2020 funded project CLAIM (Cleaning Marine Litter by Developing and Applying Innovative Methods in European Seas) is a revolutionary step because it is relatively inexpensive and toxic-free. The CLAIM project is working on five marine cleaning technologies, from which the photocatalytic device is one.
The team published a study in the journal Environmental Chemistry Letters. Professor Joydeep Dutta (KTH) summarizes the working of the technology: "Our study demonstrates rather positive results towards the effectiveness of breaking low-density polyethylene, with the help of our nanocoating under artificial sunlight. In practice, this means that once the coating is applied, microplastics will be degraded solely through the help of sunlight. The results provide new insights into the use of a clean technology for addressing the global microplastic pollution with reduced by-products."
CLAIM Coordination’s optimism feels well-deserved and exciting when they state: "A year and a half in the project we are already able to demonstrate positive results towards our ultimate goal to introduce new affordable and harmless technologies to aid us tackle the uncontrollably growing problem of marine plastic pollution. We are positive that more results will come in the following months."