Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long. Although small, they are a major problem for the environment and our health. On average, people consume about five grams of plastic every week — for Americans, it’s the equivalent of eating a plastic credit card once a year. Scientific studies are finding a growing number of plastic particles in our water systems, food, and even blood.
Reducing the number of microplastics that end up in these places requires new ideas, solutions, and technologies. In Melbourne, Australia, researchers at RMIT University have developed a powdery, magnetic solution to remove the substance from wastewater. The team’s findings were published in the “Chemical Engineering Journal.”
Wastewater treatment facilities are filled with microplastics, often smaller than human strands of hair. These plants can take days to filter the material, and they often miss millions of the smaller particles that go into our oceans and waterways. To solve this dilemma, RMIT researchers, led by Professor Nicky Eshtiaghi, created a magnetic powder.
The powder, made from recycled waste, is dumped into wastewater and adheres to or combines with the microplastics and pollutants it comes in contact with. Then a magnet is waved over the water, removing the substance and the plastic particles bonded to it.
Dr. Nasir Mahmood, the co-lead researcher on the project, spoke on the powder’s uniqueness, “The adsorbent is prepared with special surface properties so that it can effectively and simultaneously remove both microplastics and dissolved pollutants from water.”
The new method drastically cuts down the required filtration time from days to hours, removes significantly more particles than traditional methods, and reduces emissions due to its upcycled materials and lack of waste byproducts. Prior chemical-based microplastic treatment methods often resulted in creating environmentally harmful byproducts.
“The nano-pillar structure we’ve engineered to remove this pollution, which is impossible to see but very harmful to the environment, is recycled from waste and can be used multiple times,” said Esghtiaghi.
Esghtiaghi alludes to a difficult aspect of solving microplastic waste: it’s impossible to see! A big piece of the puzzle is creating awareness about the harm it causes.
The innovative powder is a massive step forward in cutting microplastic waste, but there’s a long road ahead.
“Microplastics smaller than five millimeters, which can take up to 450 years to degrade, are not detectable and removable through conventional treatment systems, resulting in millions of tons being released into the sea every year,” said Mahmood. “This is not only harmful for aquatic life, but also has significant negative impacts on human health.”
Microplastics are a huge problem, and consequently, the team at RMIT University is looking for a big rollout, searching for industrial partners to scale up their technology. The U.S. generates about 34 billion gallons of wastewater daily, so the magnetic powder isn’t lacking in options. Wastewater facilities across America will certainly be intrigued by the new method’s quick turnaround time, reusability, and economical nature.
A magnetic powder removing microplastics from wastewater won’t dominate headlines like electric vehicles or Biotech IPOs, but it’s a massive step forward in dealing with this waste problem. “This is a big win for the environment and the circular economy,” said Esghtiaghi.
After all, don’t we all prefer our Lucky Charms without a serving of plastic waste?