Sometimes it’s the smallest things that can cause the biggest problems.
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5mm across, and, sadly for all of us, billions upon billions of them have entered the world’s oceans since plastic started being used at scale in the 1950s.
They are hard to tackle because of their miniscule size — they shed from our clothes, tyres, and plastic products, or are created by the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic waste.
But we need to get a handle on them. Microplastics are incredibly damaging to marine ecosystems, killing fish, and seabirds that ingest them accidentally, even potentially affecting human health too, according to numerous scientific studies.
Want to hear something really gross? Humans could be consuming around 200mg of plastic — the equivalent of one credit card — each week through their food and water, a study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WFF) revealed in 2019.
That’s not surprising, however, as scientists are finding that almost no corner of our oceans seems to be free of microplastics — meaning it ultimately ends up in the food chain. Devastatingly, scientists last year discovered masses of microplastic particles in the deep sea zone, between 180 and 460 meters below the surface.
Tackling microplastics has to start with our plastic consumption. Remembering to take a carrier bag to the supermarket, or making sustainable fashion choices, are all good places to start. But we also need to be aware of the ways that unseen microplastics flow down our drains and into rivers and seas.
Luckily, dealing with this issue is on the minds of innovators. Here are some inspiring inventions that aim to tackle pervasive microplastics head-on.
1. Capturing fibers shed from tyres
The Tyre Collective start-up describes tyres as “the stealthy pollutant you never thought about.”
“It’s common knowledge that tyres wear down, but nobody seems to think about where it goes, and we were really shocked to discover that tyre particles are the second-largest microplastic pollution [after single-use plastics] in our oceans,” Hugo Richardson, one of co-founders of the company, said.
The particles from tyres also infuse into the air we breathe, making up to 50% of air particle emissions from road transport.
Once captured tyre particles are gathered into a removable storage unit for secondary use, creating a closed loop system/ #thetyrecollective #tyrewear #airpollution #microplastics #device #tyres #design #engineering #sustainability #environment #EV #future #pollution #ciruclareconomy #closetheloop
The Tyre Collective has designed a device that attaches to the wheel of a car and collects the miniscule plastic fibres that shed from the tyres whenever the car brakes or changes direction, using electrostatic charges to attract the particles. Some of the leftover debris collected can even be recycled to use in the manufacturing of new tyres, the group explains.
The team, who started the project during their postgraduate studies jointly at Imperial College London and the Royal Collage of Art in innovation design engineering, were awarded the prestigious James Dyson Award in the UK this September, which recognizes cutting-edge design, for their device and are now entered into the international version of the competition.
2. A liquid that removes microplastics from water
Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old from West Cork, Ireland, won the Google Science Fair prize in 2019 with his astounding invention — a liquid that can remove microplastics from water.
Ferreira used a combination of oil and magnetite powder to create a ferrofluid, a liquid that becomes magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field, Global Citizen reported at the time. When introduced to water, microplastics quickly bind to the ferrofluid and can then be removed using strong magnets, leaving only water behind.
Grand Prize winner at @googlescifair Fionn Ferreira devised a system that removes microplastics from water using non-toxic iron oxide. He was able to pull 85% of 10 different types of microplastics out of the water. Read about all the winners here: https://t.co/sT71a0MRP8pic.twitter.com/c62vk3WLJa— Scientific American (@sciam) July 29, 2019
While the clever idea addresses the symptom of plastics entering the waterways, rather than the cause, Ferreira said he hopes to scale the idea so that it can be used at wastewater treatment facilities. That way, plastic can be stopped before the water reaches the ocean.
“Once plastics enter our oceans, they are practically impossible to extract,” he said.
3. Scrubs without microbeads
Microbeads, used in products like exfoliating face wash and other cosmetics, are probably one of the most unnecessary forms of microplastic pollution. They were banned in the UK in 2018, and in the US in 2015, although many big retailers had begun to phase them out before then.
Many other countries including Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan, Ireland, Italy, India, and Thailand have also banned their use in rinse-off cosmetics. However, they can still be found hiding in other products, like paint for example.
It’s not really an invention, exactly, but these bans proved that the same exfoliating effect can come from using natural materials. Oats, salt, ground coffee, and jojoba beads are just some alternatives now found in beauty products, which just goes to show that when creating new products, plastic doesn’t have to be the default ingredient.
4. A wash bag that stops microplastics shedding from your clothes
The Guppyfriend is a simple but genius invention. It’s a wash bag that captures the tiny plastic particles that shed from your clothes when you put them in the washing machine, preventing them from going down the drain into the ocean.
Clothing labelled 100% polyester, acrylic, nylon, or polyamide are really just 100% plastics, according to consumer magazine Which?. Items like sports clothes and fleeces release thousands of miniscule plastic particles, which won't biodegrade, every time they are washed.
Although the Guppyfriend — which can fit 4kgs of clothing in before being put in the wash — is made from plastic itself, it can help people connect to the issue of microplastics because you can actually see the particles from your clothes collected in the bag after the wash.
5. A massive ocean cleanup machine
Last but not least, it’s worth mentioning this huge floating device that Dutch scientists employed to try to clear up an area that is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an island of rubbish between California and Hawaii that is three times the size of France.
The Ocean Cleanup project consists of a large 600 meter-long (2,000 ft) free-floating boom, that passively collects the plastic that are entered into it by currents. While the project aims to collect large items, its first successful attempt in October 2019 captured microplastics as small as 1mm across, the team reported.
The contraption failed the first time it was launched earlier in 2019, but since its successful run, the team now aims to scale up and make the device more durable so that it can continue to do its job of collecting plastic — both big and small.