Recycling was probably the first lesson most of us learned about sustainability, and to this day, its tremendous importance remains incomparable. For instance, studies have shown that we can save 20 times the emissions and 95% of energy by making aluminium cans out of recycled aluminium. Even with paper and cardboard products, similar successes can be observed.
But things quickly turn dire when we look at one of the biggest problem-childs distressing the 21st century: plastic.
For the most part, efforts to recycle plastic have been a monumental pain in the keister for several reasons. Aside from the excruciatingly little economic incentive available to recycle the material, they are also extremely difficult to sort due to the plethora of polymer types that comprise them. Furthermore, despite being such a common commodity, only about 5-9% of plastic is recycled worldwide. The remaining majority of the items end up polluting landfills.
Adding to this list, a new study has now found that while the plastic recycling process might be solving one problem, it is creating another in the proces.
To recycle plastic, the material is shredded and melted into pellets that can be moulded into other forms later. But before any of that takes place, it must first be washed, and this is where the problem lies.
During the cleaning process, the plastic items are washed with water several times to rid them of any impurities. However, research has found that this also ends up leeching a ton of microplastics into the water.
When scientists examined the water sources that supplied the water for washing, they found significant amounts of microplastics in all of them — nearly 30 lakh kilograms of microplastic, per year!
Water from these sources is usually routed to traditional sewage systems or even directly into the environment. This is, of course, highly concerning to the local ecosystem, as it vastly increases the chance of microplastics finding their way into individual cells of an animal’s body.
Furthermore, despite being fitted with a filtration system to account for this leeching, the researchers found that the filters could only account for plastics bigger than 1.6 microns. But microplastics, as the name implies, can be much smaller than that. The filters managed to reduce the particle number by only about half, the study found.
There is increasing evidence of microplastics entering and distressing human health, even stunting development in unborn children. While the filtration system is undoubtedly well-intentioned, the dastardly way it has backfired means we must immediately look into feasible counter-solutions.
The findings of this research have been published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances and can be accessed here.
NOTE – This article was originally published in businessinsider and can be viewed here
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