Use Plastic Responsibly – Save the Earth from Microplastic Contamination

Highlights:

  • Plastic use and
    microplastic pollution has risen alarmingly over the last few decades
    posing a major threat to humans and
    the environment since plastic
    takes several hundred years to degrade
  • To address the
    issue scientists have developed methods to accurately identify and
    quantify microplastic in any given sample, e.g. water, food, etc to gain a better understanding of the toxic effects of plastic
  • The urgent need
    of the hour is to reduce the use of plastic to
    protect the environment drastically and
    towards this end, both
    manufacturers as well as consumers of plastic have to take responsibility

Following the recent global interest in the
dangers posed by plastic pollution and curbing this menace, research in this
area has grown, and recently scientists have developed methods to precisely detect and
estimate the amount of microplastic in any given sample.


Dr. Natalia Ivleva, a
scientist at the Technical University of Munich (TUM)
, who has developed new
methods to detect and quantify plastic in any sample accurately has spoken
about the potential dangers of microplastic and details of her research.

What is Microplastic and Why is it Bad?

  • Any piece of plastic
    measuring between 5 mm and 1
    micrometer
    is referred to as
    microplastic.
    Smaller
    particles, i.e. 1 micrometer down to 100 nanometers – are termed
    sub-microplastic. Particles smaller than 100 nm are termed nano plastic.
    It has been found though that the size of most plastic particles fall in the
    lower micrometer range.
  • Both microplastics and nano plastics
    are usually formed due to degradation of pieces of plastic material, e.g.
    shopping bags, car tires, microfiber clothing material, and personal care
    products
  • Smaller sized microplastic
    particles
    can
    be
    absorbed into body tissues of organisms living in the seas and oceans
  • Nearly 400
    million tons of plastic is produced
    worldwide and when disposed of
    potentially poses a huge
    environmental threat
    as microplastic takes hundreds of years to degrade
  • When the level of
    microplastic exceeds a
    certain level
    in the environment, it can have several unforeseen effects
    since even inert material is known to be harmful beyond a certain level

Why do We Need Newer Methods to Identify and
Measure Microplastic?

  • Existing optical methods of identification do not
    reliably distinguish between microplastic and other material
    such as
    sand and other material such as
    limestone and quartz as well as organic material that may be
    found in the sea
  • The amount of
    microplastic in a given sample is quite small;
    For example, it was
    found that only 1 out a 1000 particles from a sample obtained from the Elbe
    river were microplastic when
    analyzed chemically. It is therefore important to accurate methods to estimate their levels
  • The observed
    effects and toxicity of microplastic have been very variable in different
    experiments so far

Methods to Identify and Measure Microplastics

  • Thermal
    analysis paired with gas chromatography and mass spectrometry –

    can quantify the amount of plastic in a sample but not measure the size
  • Spectroscopic
    methods can identify the amount of plastic as well as measure the particle
    size, e.g. infrared spectroscopy can measure up
    to 20 micrometer
  • At the
    Technical University of Munich (TUM), Raman microscopic analysis
    is used to facilitate reliable particle identification, i.e., determine
    whether a particle consists of synthetic polymers — or a natural
    substance such as quartz and cellulose. Combining the Raman spectrometer with
    a regular optical microscope, particles down to one micrometer or even
    smaller can be accurately detected
  • In fact, in a project funded by the
    Bavarian State Ministry of Environment and Consumer Protection, it was
    found that mussels swallow,
    especially tiny microplastic particles which get deposited extensively in
    their bodies

Improving the methods of analysis is essential to
accurately identify the plastic content in a sample and assess its size and
shape since it can help to determine to which plastic types, particle sizes and
shapes – and particularly at what concentrations of microplastics and nano
plastics exert harmful and toxic effects.

Future Research Plans

  • Making
    the Raman-based methods in the MiPaq project
    (funded
    by the Bavarian Research Foundation BFS) automated
    since it would enable analysis of several hundred particles in a sample
    accurately within a short time
  • Working together with other TUM
    departments to develop
    more accurate methods for analyzing very small particles

    as plastic material can degrade to smaller and smaller sizes over some
    time. This “SubμTrack” project is funded by the German Federal
    Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Should Plastic Be Banned?

Dr.
Natalia Ivleva feels that plastic need
not be totally banned as it is a versatile material and has many applications
. However, it is
important to find ways to reduce the use of
plastic where alternative materials
are available, and this responsibility should be
borne both by plastic manufacturers and consumers. Methods to hasten the
degradability of plastic
must also be researched to control this
alarming situation.

Summary

Scientists
have developed new methods to accurately identify and quantify plastic in
samples to determine the toxic effects and to find ways to control them. Also, use of plastic must be drastically minimized to control the
massive plastic pollution.

‘Most types of plastic take several hundred years to degrade resulting in massive microplastic pollution in the environment completely. It is important to have analytical methods to detect and accurately estimate levels of microplastic in various samples to know more about their toxic effects.’
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References :

  1. Methods for the analysis of submicrometer and nanoplastic particles in the environment – (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trac.2018.12.014)

Source: Medindia