A chemist from Altai State University Lyudmila Shcherbakova explained what microplastics are and how to deal with them

11 January 2024 Dmitry Geraikin, Editorial Office of the newspaper “For Science”
Photo by https://ru.freepik.com/author/freepik

The 21st century is the age of plastic. It, like its pieces, is everywhere. Microplastics are found in glaciers, oceans, lakes, and in soil. Recently, scientists at Columbia University studied bottled drinking water and found that each liter contains about 240 thousand plastic pieces. It has been estimated that for every 100 km of driving, approximately 20 grams of plastic dust is erased from car tires. Lyudmila Shcherbakova, an associate professor of the Department of Technosphere Safety and Analytical Chemistry at the Institute of Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Technologies of Altai State University, spoke about the risks of microplastics.

– Currently, interest in the effects of microplastics on living organisms and the number of publications devoted to the detection, identification and distribution of micro- and nanoplastics in aquatic ecosystems is growing exponentially. The fact is that plastics are widely used in all areas of our lives due to their low cost, durability, good ductility and light weight. This leads to the accumulation of plastic waste in the environment. In recent decades, plastic accumulation has become a serious global environmental problem. Everything would be fine – after all, plastics themselves are relatively harmless, but the products of their destruction – microplastics – can lead to an environmental disaster, notes Lyudmila Shcherbakova.

Microplastics are synthetic solid particles, polymer matrices of regular (or irregular) shape ranging in size from 1 micron to 5 mm. Primary microplastic particles are produced in the form of microgranules of solid polymers and are used in industry. For example, as abrasives in water/air blasting for cleaning the surfaces of buildings and ship hulls, as powders for injection molding, and more recently for 3D printing, and also as soil disintegrants.

You can find such particles in toothpaste, cosmetics, and household chemicals. In the cosmetic industry, microgranules are used in the form of microspheres, nanospheres, microcapsules, nanocapsules, etc. Today, plastic particles are found in sea and river fish, shellfish, tap and bottled water, beer, sea salt, and honey. It can also be found in plant foods, where it comes from soil and water. Every week a person consumes about 5 grams of microplastics in food and water.

Another important category of primary microplastics are pellets: spherical or cylindrical granules of “raw” plastic with a diameter of several millimeters, convenient for transportation and further processing into various products. They enter the environment mainly through industrial leaks, accidents during transportation, handling or production.

For primary microplastics, it is often possible to identify the origin and specific source, and many countries have already identified measures to prevent this type of environmental pollution. Primary microplastic pieces can transform into secondary ones. This occurs as a result of various processes: abrasion, fragmentation, sorption, leaching of additives, discoloration and cracking processes.

Note: particles of secondary microplastic are much more diverse – they can be fragments and debris of irregular shapes, films, particles of foamed plastics, scraps of threads and fishing lines, and fibers. The composition of the particle, in addition to the main plastic material, may also include other substances – both used in the production of the product and “acquired” in the environment (adsorbed chemical compounds, sediment particles, and biological film).

In connection with the problem of microplastic pollution, it is worth noting that the technosphere created by the hands and mind of man introduces new hazards unknown in the natural habitat. In this regard, one of the areas of “green chemistry” is developing very intensively – waste minimization. This includes the use of renewable raw materials, biodegradability, and waste prevention. One of the urgent and very promising tasks: post-treatment of industrial wastewater and cleaning soil from pollution with the help of plants that can “pull” heavy metals from the soil. The same wastewater from metallurgical enterprises can be further purified to the level of the maximum permissible concentration of substances in fishery reservoirs. In general, the development of green chemistry is an urgent task.

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