When you think of microplastics, you probably think of the ocean: the tiny plastic particles making their way into the stomachs of sea creatures, making much of the seafood on our plates harmful to our bodies. But what about the air? It turns out that microplastics may actually play a role in worsening climate change by making their way into our clouds.
A study conducted in Japan found that clouds at the summit of Mount Fuji and Mount Oyama contained up to 14 pieces of microplastics per liter of cloud water collected! Scientists speculated that these microplastics had played an integral role in the formations of the clouds themselves as small particles around which the vapor condenses, called “condensation nuclei.”
These microplastic-filled clouds have the potential to seriously alter our climate, from plastic rainfall to overall global pollution through faster transport of microplastics. Part of the cause is speculated to be the ocean itself, as microplastics can make their way into the sky from sea spray or other processes that make the particles light enough to become airborne.
So what is being done about this? Recently, scientists have been discovering unique solutions to the problem.
One recent solution being explored by chemist Menake Piyasena and his team in New Mexico is using ultrasound waves to remove these microplastics from the water. When ultrasound waves hit microplastics in a tube of water, they exert a force on the particles. The larger of the microplastic particles interact with one another and create another force that sends them to the edge of the water stream. By using two narrow tubes that remove these microplastics from the main tube, Piyasena’s team effectively created a microplastic filtering system.
“We think our approach will be cost-effective and simple,” says Piyasena in an article detailing his invention from ScienceNewsExplores.
Another solution, discovered by 18 year old chemistry student Fion Ferreira, is ferrofluid: a liquid that can be attracted to magnets.
“I was at our beach and I saw a rock and it had oil spill residue on it, and stuck to this oil spill residue were plastic particles,” says Ferreira in a video about his invention from the Plastic Soup Foundation.
By suspending magnetite powder in vegetable oil, Ferreira created a ferrofluid that he then mixed with a microplastic-water mixture. He then used a magnet to try and attract the entire ferrofluid-microplastic mixture out. His reasoning for his invention was that the oil would attract the microplastics, and the magnet would attract the entire ferrofluid. He found his method to be 87% effective.
Researchers in China have also shown that synthetic sponges can filter out microplastics by trapping them in their pores. Although some argue that using sponge based filters in wastewater treatment plants or washing machines could be a big first step to solving the issue, others doubt that this could work on a larger scale, such as filtering microplastics from the ocean.
“I don’t think there is anything we can do on a large enough scale that will have any impact,” says Alice Horton of the UK National Oceanography Center in an article about the invention from Smithsonian Magazine. “We have to stop it getting there in the first place.” She has a point; prevention is just as important to focus on as the cure.
While these inventions might try to solve the problem after it has already been created, there are also steps we can take in our everyday lives to stop microplastics from entering our atmosphere and oceans in the first place such as buying organic clothes, buying plastic free cosmetics, and regularly dusting and vacuuming. Microplastics may be everywhere, but we certainly reduce the amount of them occupying our planet.