Collection of plastic bottles

Study finds plastic waste disintegrates into nanoparticles

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There is a considerable risk that plastic waste in the environment releases nano-sized particles known as ‘nanoplastics’, say researchers from Lund University in Sweden.

According to the study, the majority of all marine debris is plastic, with calculations having shown that 10 per cent of all plastic produced globally ends up in the sea. Once such waste ends up in contact with the sea, it is subjected to chemical and mechanical deterioration.

Furthermore, the sun’s UV rays and waves contribute to the degradation, which causes plastic waste to grind against stones on the water’s edge, against the sea floor or against other debris.

Specialists and the research community on the subject matter are divided on whether the deterioration process stops at slightly larger plastic fragments – microplastics – or continues and creates even smaller particles.

The researchers from the university, however, have now investigated this issue by subjecting plastic material to mechanical degradation under experimental conditions.

Mimicking the degradation process of plastics in the ocean, the team studied what happened when takeaway coffee cup lids, for example, were subjected to mechanical breakdown.

“We have been able to show that the mechanical effect on the plastic causes the disintegration of plastic down to nano-sized plastic fragments,” says Tommy Cedervall, chemistry researcher at the university.

The study was conducted to show the effects of a more concerning issue, according to the team, of what happens to plastic in the environment and effect it could have on animals and humans.

Researchers have said that plastic nano-sized particles are a few millionths of a millimetre, so small that they have been shown to reach far into living organisms’ bodies.

Last year, in an earlier study from Lund University, researchers showed that nano-sized plastic particles can enter the brains of fish and that this causes brain damage which had likely disturbed fish behaviour. Although the study was conducted in a laboratory environment, it indicated that nanoplastics can lead to adverse consequences.

The emphasis of a few other recent studies from the research community has been on microplastics and their increased distribution among organisms, with more attempts to also identify nanoplastics in the environment.

“It’s important to begin mapping what happens to disintegrated plastic in nature,” concludes Cedervall.

Last month, a team at the National University of Singapore announced their development of a new process that converts plastic bottle waste into aerogels, a material used to insulate buildings, clean up oil spills and absorb carbon dioxide.

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