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Plant-based plastics drastically reduce microplastic pollution

Researchers have discovered that a plant-based plastics release significantly fewer microplastics than its conventional counterpart when exposed to sunlight and seawater.

The findings highlight the potential of bio-based plastics as a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional petroleum-derived plastics.

Plant-based plastics vs. conventional plastics

The research, led by Professor Hom Dhakal from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Mechanical and Design Engineering and experts from the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) in Belgium, compared the breakdown of two types of plastic under extreme conditions.

The study subjected a bio-based plastic made from natural feedstocks and a conventional plastic made from petroleum derivatives to intense UV light and seawater for 76 days, simulating 24 months of sun exposure in central Europe.

“Bio-based plastics are gaining interest as alternatives to conventional plastics, but little is known about their potential source of microplastics pollution in the marine environment,” explained Professor Dhakal, a member of Revolution Plastics.

“It’s important to understand how these materials behave when they’re exposed to extreme environments, so we can predict how they’ll work when they’re used in marine applications, like building a boat hull, and what impact they might have on ocean life,” Dhakal continued.

Causes of microplastics pollution

Microplastic pollution has emerged as one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. These tiny plastic particles, measuring less than 5mm in size, infiltrate marine ecosystems, posing a severe threat to aquatic life and potentially entering the human food chain.

To effectively combat this growing problem, we must first understand the primary causes behind the proliferation of microplastics in our oceans.

Plastic waste tsunami

The primary culprit behind the microplastics crisis is the staggering amount of plastic waste that enters our oceans daily.

This relentless influx of plastic debris, ranging from single-use packaging to discarded fishing gear, sets the stage for the formation of microplastics.

Fragmentation of plastic waste

When exposed to environmental stressors such as UV radiation, wind, and waves, larger plastic items begin to degrade and fragment into smaller pieces.

This process of physical breakdown is accelerated by the harsh conditions found in marine environments. As a result, once-intact plastic waste gradually disintegrates into countless microplastic particles that contaminate the oceans.

Primary microplastics

In addition to the fragmentation of larger plastic debris, microplastics can also enter the oceans directly in their microscopic form.

Known as primary microplastics, these particles are intentionally manufactured for various applications, such as cosmetic exfoliants, industrial abrasives, and synthetic clothing fibers.

When these products are used or washed, the microplastics they contain can easily find their way into waterways and, ultimately, the oceans.

Microplastics’ impact on marine life

Once microplastics enter the marine environment, they pose a significant threat to aquatic organisms. Many marine species, from tiny zooplankton to majestic whales, inadvertently ingest these plastic particles, mistaking them for food.

This ingestion can lead to malnutrition, digestive blockages, and even starvation. Moreover, microplastics can act as vectors for harmful chemicals, introducing toxins into the marine food web.

Nine times less microplastics from plant-based plastics

The study’s results showed that the plant-based plastic material released nine times less microplastics than the conventional plastic.

According to the Plastic Oceans International Organization, a truckload of plastic waste is dumped into the oceans every minute, contributing to the growing problem of microplastic pollution.

“By knowing the effect of different types of plastics on the environment, we can make better choices to protect our oceans,” Professor Dhakal emphasized.

PLA vs. polypropylene

The researchers compared polypropylene, a non-biodegradable and difficult-to-recycle conventional industrial polymer, with polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable polymer.

While the PLA released fewer microplastics, Professor Dhakal cautioned, “Although our findings show that the PLA released less microplastics, which means using plant-based plastics instead of oil-based ones might seem like a good idea to reduce plastic pollution in the ocean, we need to be careful as microplastics are still clearly being released and that remains a concern.”

Environmental stressors favor plant-based plastics

The study also revealed that the size and shape of the released microplastics varied depending on the type of plastic. The conventional plastic released smaller pieces and had fewer fiber-like shapes compared to the plant-based plastic.

“Overall our research provides valuable insights into the behavior of different plastic types under environmental stressors, which is important for our future work to tackle plastic pollution,” Professor Dhakal said.

“There is a clear need for continued research and proactive measures to mitigate the impact of microplastics on marine ecosystems,” he concluded.

Plant-based plastics offer hope for the future

In summary, the fight against microplastic pollution in our oceans continues, and the development of new plant-based plastics offers a glimmer of hope.

While this study shows that plant-based plastics release less microplastics than conventional plastics, the presence of these tiny particles in our oceans remains a concern.

The Revolution Plastics initiative, of which Professor Dhakal is a member, plays a crucial role in driving research, informing policies, and contributing to the global effort to end plastic pollution.

As we move forward, it is essential to continue exploring innovative solutions, raising awareness, and taking proactive measures to protect our marine ecosystems from the detrimental effects of microplastics.

The full study was published in the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety.


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