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The State of Play of Microplastics

Photo by Sören Funk on Unsplash

By Luca Piatti, Regional Segment Leader Environmental, at PerkinElmer

Our oceans are teeming with microplastics, they’re invading our bodies and even contaminating our air supply. But what are they? Where do they come from? And how can we address the issues microplastics present?

What are Microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic, smaller than 0.5 millimetres or 0.2 inches (which is about the size of a sesame seed). They’re typically categorised as either primary or secondary. Primary microplastics are manufactured small, like abrasives in cleaning products, toothpaste, or skincare. Secondary microplastics originate from larger plastic materials as they break down after exposure to the sun or ocean waves. Examples include fibres from plastic-based fabrics, water bottles and plastic bags.

Why are microplastics harmful?

Like their full-size counterparts, microplastics take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose. However, the small size of microplastics make them particularly damaging to the ecosystem. After entering waterways, these particles can be absorbed by aquatic flora and ingested by aquatic fauna – they have been detected in creatures from plankton and fish right through to whales. This can result in bioaccumulation in the food chain.

And it’s not just marine life that’s at risk; microplastics are suspected of playing a role in human infertility, cancer and obesity.

Additionally, microplastics can absorb toxic chemicals, and harmful pathogens can adhere to their surfaces, increasing their damaging effect considerably.

But the full, the negative impact of microplastics is still far from being fully understood. Increased research and analysis are needed to develop a clear picture of the incidence of microplastics and their effects to help inform the development of guidelines and regulations within this space.

How can we learn more about microplastics?

Arming scientists with the necessary technologies, training and workflows is critical to investigating the role of microplastics in human health, sea life and environmental degradation.

PerkinElmer can provide scientists with a variety of advanced analytical technologies able to support testing and analysis to unlock advances in research and insights. These technologies help scientists better understand both the volume and makeup of microplastic in the planet’s water sources.

Portable, rugged, infrared, and infrared microscopy can be used on land or at sea. These technologies expand the detection range to large variety of chemicals/polymers. They also offer the ability to identify chemical composition and structure while preserving the sample. This helps provide better information about the original source of the particle.

Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry combined with thermal techniques, such as thermogravimetric analysis or thermal desorber, offer scientists the ability to heat and decompose the microplastic sample. This enables more efficient testing and more reliable results, such as identification and quantification of specific polymers and chemical additives. Additionally, PerkinElmer’s Organic and Inorganic Mass Spectrometers also support scientists in microplastics research as they provide high sensitivity and specificity, which are key for the task.

Finally, automated software and data evaluation like particle detection algorithms deliver faster and better results and insights.

What’s the latest in research and analysis?

eXXpedition, a non-profit organisation that takes all-female crews on transformative journeys at sea, on land and online to understand the causes of and solutions to the plastic pollution problem, has used PerkinElmer testing technologies at sea and in labs to help generate first of its kind data on microplastic quantities and sources in the Southern Caribbean.

In late 2021, research from the Caribbean section of eXXpedition Round the World was published in partnership with the University of Plymouth. The paper covers findings on ocean surfaces, sub-surfaces, sediment, and land-based litter near marinas. It revealed plastic bag and polystyrene foam litter was sparse in Antigua and Aruba, where these items are banned. However, polystyrene foam was identified in surface water, suggesting this may have been carried to the region by ocean currents.

The highest concentration of plastic in the area was located off the Panama San Blas Islands. Analysis revealed this is likely due to distant sources carried by ocean currents as well as run-off from mainland Panama, which is estimated to have one of the highest levels of mismanaged waste in the region.

The samples collected off Antigua had the highest diversity of plastic types, suggesting these may have been transported by ocean currents.

University of Birmingham’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES) is also leading the way with ground-breaking work in the microplastics field, supported by innovative technology combinations from PerkinElmer. The Environmental Nanoscience lab at GEES lab is studying microplastics in marine and freshwater settings, particularly how they move through aquatic systems and what drives or impedes movement as well as the impact on aquatic organisms.

The data being analysed will help identify trends, hotspots and vulnerable geographic areas, sources of microplastics and aid in the development of mitigation strategies.

What is next?

It is clear that the harmful effects of microplastics on marine ecosystems and human health warrants greater regulation to preserve these important environments, however this is preceded by a need for increased research to fully understand and inform mitigation strategies.

The future goals of microplastics research include obtaining long term monitoring to accurately identify trends, determining the effects of microplastics, and tracing the source of location-specific microplastic contamination. Effective management of microplastics also requires the design and implementation of remedial strategies to manage existing pollution, suitable changes in plastic production to eliminate problematic chemicals, and good progress in bio polymers.

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