Is the world’s biggest plastic problem actually the smallest?

Most people are well aware of the issues that single use plastics are causing the environment and are in favour of recycling efforts and finding ways to re-use and repurpose plastic products. Indeed these recycling and circular economy efforts are very much needed, but it won’t solve what is emerging as possibly one of the biggest problems of all. It’s not just the plastic we can see that’s causing damage, it’s what we can’t see which is far more insidious. Micro plastics.

Micro plastics are plastic particles 5mm and smaller, sometimes much, much smaller! Sometimes so small that they ‘dissolve’ in a drop of water. Except that they don’t really ever dissolve, they are just broken down into ever decreasing sized particles until they are almost impossible to detect. Scientists have found micro plastics in artic snow as well as in snow from the European Alps. Now before you start imaging multi-coloured snowdrifts, this isn’t the case. The snow is as white and pristine as it was before, except now it’s not just snow, it is micro plastic snow.

If this wasn’t scary enough, biologists have found plastic deposits accumulating on rocks, hardening into a crust that cannot be dislodged. These plasti-crust deposits occur in the intertidal zone and have been identified on several coastlines around the world. It is believed that plasti-crust is a result of rising temperatures as well as the large volume of micro plastics that are found in the sea.  At low tide the micro plastics washed up on rocks are exposed to the heat from the sun. As a result the plastic particles bond together and to the rocks. When the tide rises again it has a cooling and hardening effect on the plastic forming a crust.

Why are plastic rocks and snow a problem?   

Scientists believe that the micro plastic particles are distributed widely by wind and filter down through our water systems into the oceans. We’ve heard calls for cosmetic companies to stop putting microbeads into shower gel, there are public campaigns to clean up beaches and rivers, but did you know that every time you switch your washing machine on, you’re contributing to the problem?

Micro fibres from synthetic fabrics come lose and are flushed out into storm water drains, which ultimately flow into the ocean. Almost every aspect of modern life it seems is contributing to the plastic problem. Scientists believe that the anthropological mark of this generation will be plastic. Its residues will be set in stone, quite literally and be the identifying mark of almost every facet of human life on earth. 

Plastic is in the soil, it is in the water, it is moulding to rocks, and scientists believe it is in the air too, dispersed by the wind. Essentially plastic ‘dust’ is now becoming part of our environment. But if all of that isn’t enough to get people concerned, then this should. As humans we’re consuming micro plastic without even being aware of it. Marine studies have shown alarmingly high levels of plastic in fish and chances are it’s entering the food chain elsewhere too. Studies have shown that micro plastics can contribute to inflammation and stress – two factors that have direct links to many chronic illnesses.

Is there a macro solution to this micro problem?

One of the biggest problems with micro plastics, especially when its nano particles being considered, is that because they are so incredible small, it’s very difficult to identify and study their effects. Even science admits that this is the real reason why no consensus can be reached on whether micro plastics are harmful for humans at current levels.

However, now thanks to a young innovator, we might be able to start getting some answers and finding a solution to the micro plastic problem. An 18 year old Irish youth, Fionn Ferreira, won the 2019 Google Science Fair with his innovative idea to use a magnetic liquid invented by NASA to remove micro plastic from the ocean. NASA’s application of the magnetic liquid was primarily used for the purpose of being able to move fuel in zero gravity. Today commercial applications use magnetic liquid to reduce vibrations in speakers and other electronic devices.

In his experiment, Fionn Ferreira hoped to remove at least 85% of micro plastics, He achieved 88%. He also experimented with different types of plastics and achieved a broad range of results. He is hoping to continue his experiments as he studies at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands with the aim of finding a solution for treating waste water. Let’s hope that his findings will spur further innovation and that we will be able to curb the effects of micro plastics on a macro level before it’s too late.