Microplastics are defined as small – less than 5mm in length – pieces of any kind of plastic debris. Their presence in water supplies, including rivers, lakes, wastewater, or drinking water, has emerged as an urgent issue in recent years. According to a recent review, some scientific studies count thousands of microplastic particles in every liter of drinking water. And in 2018, Orb Media found plastic particles in many major brands of bottled water.
While the WHO says that most of the current levels don’t seem to pose an apparent health risk, the UN is urgently calling for more research on the topic. Studies into plastics in water have only been providing insights over the last couple of years, so we’re yet to understand the full potential impact of microplastics on humans.
But the issue is hardly a problem for humans only. Researchers have been warning about the potential impact of plastic pollution on marine life, including sharks, whales, and rays. By swallowing hundreds of plastic micro bits daily, the creatures could suffer from damage to their digestive system and toxin exposure affecting their biological processes, such as growth and reproduction. And the damage extends to natural habitats: Riverbeds and beaches are polluted with microscopic plastic beads, fragments, and fibers, with evidence of these ultimately entering our food chain.
While proper waste management is the most direct way to tackle the issue, there are also diverse initiatives advancing more innovative solutions to remove microplastics from water supplies. Who are these key players and what are their proposed solutions?
Planet Care is a Slovenian-based startup actively fighting microfibre pollution. Around two-thirds of all clothing contains some kind of synthetic materials – so on a daily basis, humans release millions of microfibers into the water just by washing our clothes. That’s why Planet Care designed its innovative filter that it says can stop up to 90% of this pollution, advancing an easy and consumer-friendly solution to protect the environment. The filter takes less than 10 minutes to install and requires a simple cartridge exchange once in about 20 washes. According to the company, in five years, its users will prevent more than 500 tons of microfibre emissions.
SimConDrill, a project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is deploying a patented laser drilling technology to fight microplastics water pollution. By developing a cyclone filter that enables the filtration of particles down to 0.01mm, this presents a potentially powerful solution to be deployed in wastewater systems. The project is currently nominated for a Green Award as part of the Greentech Festival.
CLAIM is an EU-funded initiative that targets the prevention and in-situ management of plastic pollution. Through comprehensive methodologies, it will focus on the development and deployment of five new marine cleaning technologies, with a focus on two main source points: wastewater treatment plants and river mouths. These include a photocatalytic nanocoating device that will degrade microplastics in treatment plants, thermal treatment device that will be used to turn collected litter into energy powering ships and heating up ports, a floating boom that will collect and monitor visible litter, and ferrybox systems that will incorporate automated seawater sampling device and passive flow-through filtering.
Guppyfriend presents another innovative solution to prevent microplastic pollution from clothes washing. Its patented, self-cleaning washing bag presents a practical way to prevent the tiniest microfibers from entering water supplies. The users can reduce fiber shedding while protecting their clothes, and simply collect the fibers and dispose of them properly after the washing cycle. Such a practical solution inspires consumers to change their buying habits and washing rituals to maintain a more sustainable lifestyle.
Sand Separation Systems, a UK-based company, is dedicated to designing innovative products. One of its machines, the Agri-Sandmaster, shows how machinery can be used in the separation of sand from microplastics, bringing focus on battling microplastic pollution in the water as well as on the beach. While common sieving machines can’t pick up microplastics because of the typical 10-millimeter filters, the company says it’s machine could create a revolution in the removal of microplastics, even in circumstances previously thought impossible.
Whether it’s new materials, machines, or approaches, we are seeing that there are many projects advancing the removal of microplastics from water supplies. While some are still in their initial stages, they show that there are diverse ways for us to be more proactive about fighting the issue, both on the consumer and commercial level.