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Recycling plastic could be releasing vast amounts of microplastics that are harmful to humans, animals and the planet, new research has discovered.
A study has found that the chopping, shredding and washing of plastic in recycling facilities may turn as much as six to 13% of incoming waste into tiny, toxic particles. Four scientists sampled wastewater from a state-of-the-art recycling plant at an undisclosed location in the UK and were alarmed at the findings.
They estimated that the facility could be releasing up to 75 billion plastic particles in each cubic metre of wastewater. “I was incredibly shocked,” said Erina Brown, who led the research while she was a graduate student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.
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“It’s scary. With plastic recycling, we have designed and initiated it in order to start protecting our environment. I think this study has shown that we have ended up creating a different if potentially slightly worse problem.”
The recycling plant allowed scientists to measure microplastics in wastewater before and after the plant installed filters, which Brown said definitely helped to reduce microplastics. The estimate of 75 billion particles a cubic metre is for a plant with a filter. Most of the particles were less than 10 microns, around the diameter of a human red blood cell, with more than 80% smaller than five microns, while the study measured microplastics down to a size of 1.6 microns.
Brown added: “These are digestible by so many different organisms and found to be ingested by humans. And we assume that there are many, many, many particles in sizes smaller than this.
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“For me, it highlights how drastically we need to reduce our plastic consumption and production.”
The researchers calculated the plant would release as much as 3,000,000lb of microplastics with filtration, and up to 6,500,000lb without filtration, per year. The paper was published in the Journal of Hazardous Material Advances as United Nations delegates get ready to hold their second meeting to negotiate a potential global plastics treaty later this month in Paris.
Other scientists are finding microplastics in human blood, human placentas and in nearly all corners of the planet, and the United Nations has warned that chemicals in microplastics are associated with serious health impacts including changes in human genetics, brain development and reproduction.
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