Microplastics - a huge problem on a microscopic scale
Jul 23, 2019
What are Microplastics?
We’re all increasingly aware of the environmental harm that plastics are capable of, especially in our rivers, seas and oceans – where larger plastic items can cause visible physical harm to wildlife. What about the plastic waste we can’t see? Microplastics are tiny plastic particles, either produced this way, known as primary microplastics (for use in toothpastes for example), or formed as the result of degradation, known as secondary microplastics. Since plastics don’t biodegrade, they are gradually eroded into smaller and smaller particles – it’s the smallest plastic particles that are capable of causing the most damage, some are even small enough to enter the bloodstream.
Why is it a cause for concern?
Microplastics are so small that they’re often not filtered out of waste waters that ultimately end up in our rivers, seas and oceans. Wildlife, especially small aquatic organisms and fish, end up eating these microplastics which can build up in their bodies causing ill health or even death. Additionally, some of the chemicals used in plastics can be toxic in large enough quantities. Bioaccumulation of microplastics is particularly concerning, this is where substances accumulate as you move up through the food chain since they can’t be digested and excreted – let’s not forget that we eat sea food!
A scanning electron microscope is used to detect particles between 10 µm and 1 mm (on special request we can analyse particles as small as 1 µm). For this analysis we require 250 ml of sample. Any organic materials present in the sample are degraded prior to analysis.
An FTIR instrument is used to both count and identify microplastic particles, something that cannot be done using the SEM method above. Paticles as small as 20 µm can be both detected and identified using this method.
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