The oceans are full of plastic, from bags and bottles to those pesky microbeads. Despite the fact that bacteria is actually evolving to digest some of this trash, much of it will end up wiping out wildlife, or at least end up in their stomachs shortly before we fish them out of the sea and eat them ourselves. Its not the most pleasant of cycles.
Although recycling certainly helps to protect the environment and fight climate change, its likely that making the switch from conventional plastic which takes decades to centuries to break down to bioplastic, a plant-derived type that naturally decomposes in very short spaces of time, is required to make a major difference in this regard.
Fortunately, a team at the University of Bath (UoB) may have just made a breakthrough that will see microbeads replaced with bioplastic versions in the near future.
The project leads explain how they created their bioplastic microbeads. University of Bath via Vimeo
Microbeads can be found in a wide range of bathroom and skincare products, from soaps to gels to creams to cosmetics. Theyre normally there in order to give them a pleasant texture, or to help exfoliate the skin. Unfortunately, their incredibly small size means that they arent removed by modern sewage filtration systems, and they invariably escape into the open ocean, where animals regularly consume them.
The UK government recently pledged to ban the use of microbeads in products sold and used in the country, and its hopeful that other nations will soon follow suit. Assuming that they do not, however, the UoBs new study in the ACS journal of Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering reveals that there may be another way to solve this problem.
Taking cellulose, the fibrous material found in vegetation that binds structures together, the team found that dissolving it in a particular solution and using it to form tiny beads is not only a workable process, but a surprisingly efficient one. When used in water, they retain their strength and shape but microorganisms quickly break them down into harmless sugars when they turn up in the sewage system.
Not only would this method ensure that trillions of microbeads fail to reach the oceans every single year, but it has the potential to be a low-carbon manufacturing method too. Cellulose is incredibly common, and instead of using plants, it could be sourced from recycled paper.
The teams next step will be to work with industry partners and microbead manufacturers in order to see if their method can be scaled up to a mass production level. If it can be, then it may not be long before those pesky pieces of plastic will permanently be off the menu for all those critters swimming around under the sea.