The benefits of plastics are innumerable, and modern life would be impossible without them. Plastics are easy to form, versatile, light-weight, and inexpensive. But we are only now beginning to reckon with the true costs of their impact. Here are some innovators working on the problem of microplastics.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics arise from the inevitable process of degradation of plastics. Unlike most substances, as plastics degrade they wear down into smaller and smaller particles that never break down, and never become a source of energy for other ecosystems.

Plastic is also frequently full of additives like BPA, softening agents, plasticizers, stabilizers, pigments, flame retardants, and colorants, which may contain heavy metals. Along with PCBs and PAHs, these substances are harmful to organisms, and have pseudo-hormonal effects on living creatures. 

Small particles of plastic, ranging in size from 5 millimeters to .1 micron, are called “microplastics”, which are often visible to the human eye. Smaller pieces are called “nanoplastics”, which range from .1 micron down to .001 micron. As plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller bits, it becomes so fine as to be invisible, and unfilterable. In water, it remains suspended in the water column. In the air, particles drift into the lungs or come down in rain. In the soil. particles are so minute they are taken up by the roots of plants.

The Problem of Microplastics

Pictures of sea creatures wrapped in plastic are plentiful and heart-rending. Less visible is what plastic does to the tiniest water creatures.  Zooplankton creates about 90% of the oxygen for the planet, and forms the basis of every food chain. As they go about their lives in fresh and saltwater, they take in those nanoparticles of plastic, mistaking them for food. They get less nutrition than they need. As a result, they are smaller, die sooner, and reproduce less successfully. 

Like other substances, plastic concentrates as it moves up the food chain. Plastic is now routinely found in human foods: in water, fruits and vegetables, salt, beer, and honey, as well as in dairy, meat, and seafood. Just as macroplastics surround us every day, microplastics have moved into our environment and our bodies.

Researchers have published findings indicating that the average human body is accumulating about 5 grams of plastic per week, through respiration, ingestion, skin contact, and other routes. 

What’s Being Done About Microplastics?

The challenge posed by plastic in the environment is being taken up by some dynamic, creative people. Let’s take a look at three of them.

  • Fionn Ferriera is a 21-year-old scientist and inventor from Ireland. He is currently studying chemistry at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. He decided to tackle plastic pollution after seeing it when he kayaked along the Irish coast. After what he describes as “thousands of failed attempts” he came up with an effective method to remove microplastics from water. In 2019 he won first prize at the Google Science Fair with a process that removes 87% of plastic from water, using magnets and a ferrofluid made of only oil and magnetite. His startup, Fionn & Co., is scaling up the invention with funding from Robert Downey Jr.’s Footprint Coalition. Ferriera is also the founder of GI!c, an organization aimed at inspiring and connecting people to be the change that the world needs, and to make science available to everyone. His work has been recognized by MIT, National Geographic Society, Hewlett Packard, and Forbes 30 Under 30, among many others.
  • Katrin Schuhen, PhD. Dr. Katrin Schuhen’s company, Wasser 3.0, is a green technology non-profit GmbH in Germany. As a junior professor at the University of Koblenz-Landau, Schuhen developed a method to remove plastic from water. Her invention is an inert silica dioxide gel called PE-X, which causes plastics to clump together so they can be skimmed off. The process also removes pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, pesticides, and PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – persistent man-made chemicals with potential negative effects on health and the environment) Wasser 3.0 first evaluates the water to determine the ideal composition of the PE-X gel, then removes the plastics, and finally determines re-use of the material. The company is researching applications for the agglomerates of plastic. Wasser 3.0 can be easily installed at waste-water sites and industrial processing locations. Low-tech, inexpensive, and scalable, Wasser 3.0 enables the capture of plastics and pollutants without expensive filtration systems and will adapt easily anywhere in the world. 
  • Boyan Slat is a Dutch inventor and entrepreneur. As a teenager diving in Greece, he found more plastic bags than fish in the water. He decided to do something about it. Slat is most widely known for conceiving the innovative idea of the Ocean Cleanup, as well as for his ability to inspire millions of people around the world to contribute to making it a reality. He is the founder and CEO of the organization. Ocean Cleanup has so far removed over 1.3 million kg of waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch using their ‘System 2.0’. A system 3.0, upgraded and three times larger, is being developed. The organization’s goal is to achieve a 90% reduction of plastic floating in the world’s oceans by 2040. Ocean Cleanup also designs and deploys Interceptors –  devices which remove trash from rivers before it reaches the ocean. Ocean Cleanup found that 80% of ocean trash enters the sea through 1000 rivers. Eight Interceptors are in place as of summer 2022. 

Scientists are working on a wide range of solutions for microplastics, including cultivating bacteria and microorganisms that fight plastic pollution, developing new filtration systems, and finding ways to convert plastics into energy. Governments are working on new guidelines for textiles, automotive, and other plastic-producing industries. In the meantime, consumers should avoid micro-plastic-producing processes like tumble-drying clothes with heat, microwaving foods in plastic containers, recycling responsibly, and reducing plastic use in general. Grapefrute believes in responsible manufacturing and packaging of consumer goods, and partners with companies working toward a healthier, more sustainable future.