Degrading microplastics with a new nanocoating and sunlight

via Marine Megafauna Foundation

Low density polyethylene film (LDPE) microplastic fragments, successfully degraded in water using visible-light-excited heterogeneous ZnO photocatalysts.

The innovative nanocoating technology was developed by a research team from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden and was further investigated together with PP Polymer, Sweden, as part of the EU Horizon 2020 funded project CLAIM: Cleaning Marine Litter by Developing and Applying Innovative Methods in European Seas (GA no. 774586).

Microplastics are a global menace to the biosphere owing to their ubiquitous distribution, uncontrolled environmental occurrences, small sizes and long lifetimes.

While currently applied remediation methods including filtration, incineration and advanced oxidation processes like ozonation, all require high energy or generate unwanted byproducts, the team of CLAIM scientists propose an innovative toxic-free methodology reliant solely on relatively inexpensive nanocoatings and visible light.

The study, published in Environmental Chemistry Letters,is part of CLAIM’s ambition to develop a small-scale photocatalytic device to be deployed in wastewater plants aiding the degradation and breaking down microplastics in the water streams into harmless elements.

The scientists tested the degradation of fragmented, low-density polyethylene (LDPE) microplastic residues, by visible light-induced heterogeneous photocatalysis activated by zinc oxide nanorods. Results showed a 30% increase of the carbonyl index, a marker used to demonstrate the degradation of polymeric residues. Additionally, an increase of brittleness accompanied by a large number of wrinkles, cracks and cavities on the surface were recorded.

“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.” explains Prof. Joydeep Dutta, KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

The photocatalytic device is one of five marine cleaning technologies developed within the CLAIM project.

“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 uncontrolably growing problem of marine plastic pollution. We are positive that more results will come in the following months.” concludes CLAIM Coordination.

Learn more: Innovative nanocoating technology harnesses sunlight to degrade microplastics

 

 

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Not good news: Microplastic contamination has been found in groundwater systems

ISTC Senior Analytical Chemist John W Scott, front left, is joined in the labs at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana by co-author, ISGS researcher Sam Panno, far right, and fellow research team members, back row from left, Walt Kelly, Nancy Holm and Wei Zheng. Their research documents the presence of plastic microfiber contamination in fractured limestone aquifers.

Microplastics contaminate the world’s surface waters, yet scientists have only just begun to explore their presence in groundwater systems. A new study is the first to report microplastics in fractured limestone aquifers – a groundwater source that accounts for 25 percent of the global drinking water supply.

The study identified microplastic fibers, along with a variety of medicines and household contaminants, in two aquifer systems in Illinois. The findings are published in the journal Groundwater.

“Plastic in the environment breaks down into microscopic particles that can end up in the guts and gills of marine life, exposing the animals to chemicals in the plastic,” said John Scott, a researcher at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and study co-author. “As the plastics break down, they act like sponges that soak up contaminants and microbes and can ultimately work their way into our food supply.”

Groundwater flows through the cracks and voids in limestone, sometimes carrying sewage and runoff from roads, landfills and agricultural areas into the aquifers below, Scott said.

The researchers collected 17 groundwater samples from wells and springs – 11 from a highly fractured limestone aquifer near the St. Louis metropolitan area and six from an aquifer containing much smaller fractures in rural northwestern Illinois.

All but one of the 17 samples contained microplastic particles, with a maximum concentration of 15.2 particles per liter from a spring in the St. Louis area, the study reports. However, deciphering what that concentration means is a challenge, Scott said. There are no published risk assessment studies or regulations.

The researchers did find, however, that concentrations from their field areas are comparable to those of surface water concentrations found in the rivers and streams in the Chicago area, said Samuel V. Panno, an Illinois State Geological Survey researcher and lead author of the study.

“The research on this topic is at a very early stage, so I am not convinced we have a frame of reference to state expectations or bounds on what is considered low or high levels,” said Tim Hoellein, a biology professor at Loyola University Chicago and study co-author. “Our questions are still basic – how much is there and where is it coming from?”

The researchers identified a variety of household and personal health contaminants along with the microplastics, a hint that the fibers may have originated from household septic systems.

“Imagine how many thousands of polyester fibers find their way into a septic system from just doing a load of laundry,” Scott said. “Then consider the potential for those fluids to leak into the groundwater supply, especially in these types of aquifers where surface water interacts so readily with groundwater.”

There is still a monumental amount of work to be done on this subject, Scott said. He anticipates that microplastic contamination in both surface water and groundwater will be a problem for years to come.

“Even if we quit plastics cold turkey today, we will still deal with this issue for years because plastic never really goes away,” Scott said. “It is estimated that 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste have been produced since the 1940s, and 79 percent of that is now in landfills or the natural environment. To me, it is such a weird concept that these materials are intended for single use, yet they are designed to last forever.”

Learn more: Microplastic contamination found in common source of groundwater, researchers report

 

 

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A better water filtration system that could even deal with the emerging threat from microplastics pollution?

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Manta rays strain their tiny food from mouthfuls of seawater in a novel way that could hold the key to better filtration in a variety of commercial applications, new research by Oregon State University shows.

Published today in Science Advances, the findings explain that manta rays filter zooplankton, mesoplankton and microcrustaceans with an apparatus different from anything previously seen in any biological or industrial system.

“The most common type of filter is a sieve filter, where a particle-containing fluid is passed through a membrane with pores smaller than the particles,” said study co-author Jim Strother, assistant professor of integrative biology in the OSU College of Science.

Sieve filters include everything from a kitchen colander that strains pasta to membrane filters that produce ultrapure water. Other filter mechanisms are hydrosol filtration, such as the fiber filters in HVAC systems, and cyclonic filtration, used in bagless vacuum cleaners.

“There are lots of different types of filters used for many purposes worldwide, but they’re all based on just a few fundamental mechanisms,” said Strother, who collaborated with corresponding author Misty Paig-Tran and Raj Divi of Cal State Fullerton.

Manta rays, close relatives of sharks that can measure more than 20 feet across, eat by bringing plankton-rich water into their mouths as they swim. They filter and ingest the plankton and then flush the remaining water out their gill slits.

Many filtration systems are prone to clogging as they collect whatever they’re filtering out, but manta rays use arrays of leaf-like lobes to bounce food particles away from the filter.

Water passing over the lobes creates a complex pattern of swirling eddies, and food particles in the flow hit the lobes and move away. The setup allows the fish to retain food organisms much smaller than the pores.

“Manta rays appear to utilize a novel mechanism for filtering particles out of fluids,” Strother said. “Their filtering apparatus has a special structure that causes plankton particles to ricochet off the filter and become concentrated in the mouth cavity, so the fish can then ingest them.”

Since the particles are repelled by the filter but not captured, the filter has several highly desirable properties, including that it can be operated at high flow rates and is extremely resistant to clogging.

“This paper establishes the basic mechanism, and we are currently looking at whether we can adapt this mechanism for engineered systems,” Strother said. “For example, one future direction is exploring whether this can be applied to wastewater treatment in order to address the emerging threat from microplastics pollution.”

Learn more: Manta rays’ food-capturing mechanism may hold key to better filtration systems

 

 

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Is microplastic debris the next big ocean threat?

June 8 is World Oceans Day, a day dedicated to the education and advancement of healthy ocean environments. Photo courtesy of Dr. Krista Kamer

More than five trillion pieces of plastic debris are estimated to be in our oceans, though many are impossible to see with the naked eye.
Plastic, metal, rubber and paper are some of the materials that pollute the world’s oceans, often in the form of soda cans, cigarette butts, plastic bags and bottles, and fishing gear.Environmental and marine science specialists call it “marine debris,” which, simply put, means anything in the ocean that wasn’t put there by nature.Recently, though, a new type of trash — microplastics — has become a focus for marine researchers, and they fear the impact of this type of debris may be especially dire.

Microplastics are particularly problematic for the planet’s seas since they’re a lot harder to see with the naked eye. Measuring less than five millimeters and often requiring magnifying technology to view, these are particles of broken-down plastic fibers that end up in the ocean. Marine life can easily ingest the particles or mistake them for food.?

Sean Anderson, Ph.D., an associate professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University, Channel Islands, leads research on the effects of marine debris on California’s ocean fauna and flora.

“Marine debris is everywhere; it’s on the surface of the ocean, it’s on our beaches, and its presence is increasing,” he explains. “We’re seeing more [marine debris] in our oceans now than in the past.”

“The thing that is most disturbing to me is not the ‘macrodebris’ that we can easily see with our eyes; it’s the ubiquity of microplastics that has completely blown me away,” adds Dr. Anderson.

According to Anderson, microplastics have been found on every beach in the state that has been tested so far.  “This stuff is a sign of the weight of our footprint on our planet,” he says.

The Impact of Microplastics

If marine organisms consume microplastics, the results could be ?harmful to the ocean’s ecology, as well as deadly for the organisms, depending on how much is consumed.

“Microfibers and microplastics can displace critters’ natural food and natural behavior,” notes Anderson. “The critter may need to work more and use more energy; it may block their intestinal tracts,” too.

Krista Kamer, Ph.D., director of the CSU Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology (COAST), the umbrella organization for marine, coastal and coastal watershed-related research at the California State University, agrees that microplastics are a serious and growing concern.

“Trash in the ocean, including significant amounts of microplastics, is a pervasive and significant problem in the waters off California as well as around the world,” says Dr. Kamer. “Microplastics are particularly concerning because of their ubiquitous distribution and disastrous impacts on marine life.”

Plastics have a physical and chemical impact in the marine environment, she continues. “Researchers have found birds whose stomachs are full of plastic, yet they are starving to death because they are literally full and can’t ingest anything nutritious.”

And the same chemicals in plastics that can leach out and harm people can also affect marine life. These chemicals can then “act like a sponge, soaking up additional pollutants from the surrounding waters, only to leach them back out again, oftentimes into animals that have ingested the plastics,” explains Kamer.

“This leads to accumulation of toxic chemicals in marine life, even in situations where the animals are far from humans.”

Anderson and his team of undergraduate students recently conducted a study in which they observed the digestive systems of multiple crab species along California’s coast, the majority of which were found to have ingested microplastic fragments. One organism studied by the group had nearly 100 fragments of microplastic, though these crabs are tiny – about the size of a thumbnail.

They recently took their research a step further to study the impact microplastics have on marine life and possibly on humans by examining coastal areas throughout the state.

Still, both researchers stress that extensive studies are needed to better understand the reach and impact of microplastics.

“COAST has supported a number of projects investigating the abundance of microplastics in California coastal habitats, how they behave in marine systems, and what happens when marine animals ingest them,” Kamer says of her organization’s ongoing efforts.

“The results of this research will help California continue to lead the way in protecting our valuable marine and coastal resources.”

To learn more about issues affecting the planet’s oceans, as well as what you can do to support local efforts, visit The Ocean Project, coordinator of World Oceans Day.  ?

Learn more:World Oceans Day: Why Microplastic Debris May Be the Next Big Threat to Our Seas

 

 

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First evidence of deep-sea animals ingesting microplastics

Microfibre close up Claire Gwinnett

Microfibre close up
Claire Gwinnett

Scientists have found evidence of microfibers ingested by deep sea animals, revealing for the first time the environmental fallout of microplastic pollution.

The UK government recently announced that it is to ban plastic microbeads, commonly found in cosmetics and cleaning materials, by the end of 2017.  This followed reports by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee about the environmental damage caused microbeads. The Committee found that a single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean.

Researchers from the universities of Bristol and Oxford, working on the Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Cook in the mid-Atlantic and south-west Indian Ocean , have now found evidence of microbeads inside hermit crabs, squat lobsters and sea cucumbers, at depths of between 300m and 1800m.  This is the first time microplastics – which can enter the sea via the washing of clothes made from synthetic fabrics or from fishing line nets – have been shown to have been ingested by animals at such depth.

The results are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Laura Robinson, Professor of Geochemistry in Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, said: “This result astonished me and is a real reminder that plastic pollution has truly reached the furthest ends of the Earth.”

Microplastics are generally defined as particles under 5mm in length and include the microfibres analysed in this study and the microbeads used in cosmetics that will be the subject of the forthcoming Government ban.

Among the plastics found inside deep-sea animals in this research were polyester, nylon and acrylic. Microplastics are roughly the same size as ‘marine snow’ – the shower of organic material that falls from upper waters to the deep ocean and which many deep-sea creatures feed on.

Dr Michelle Taylor of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, and lead author of the study, said: “The main purpose of this research expedition was to collect microplastics from sediments in the deep ocean – and we found lots of them. Given that animals interact with this sediment, such as living on it or eating it, we decided to look inside them to see if there was any evidence of ingestion. What’s particularly alarming is that these microplastics weren’t found in coastal areas but in the deep ocean, thousands of miles away from land-based sources of pollution.”

The animals were collected using a remotely operated underwater vehicle. The study, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), was a collaboration between The University of Oxford, the University of Bristol, the Natural History Museum in London, and Staffordshire University’s Department of Forensic and Crime Science, which made sure the results were robust and the study was free from potential contamination.

Dr Claire Gwinnett, Associate Professor in Forensic and Crime Science at Staffordshire University, said: “Existing forensic approaches for the examination of fibres are tried and tested for their robustness and must stand up to the scrutiny of the courts of law. These techniques were employed in this research in order to effectively reduce and monitor contamination and therefore provide confidence in the fact that the microplastics found were ingested, and not from the laboratory or other external contaminant.

“Using forensic laboratory techniques, we have identified that microplastics are present in ingested material from deep sea creatures. Forensic science is still a fairly new science, but we are delighted that our work and techniques are starting to inform other sciences and important environmental research such as this.”

Learn more: First evidence of deep-sea animals ingesting microplastics

 

 

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