DC – 2019 AAAS Meeting, Environmental and Textile Scientists Combating Microplastic Pollution

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April 7, 2019 by Dr. G

Another panel I attended at the 2019 AAAS Meeting was titled Environmental and Textile Scientists Combating Microplastic Pollution. This was another one of the most exciting collection of science talks I had attended in a long time – not just because it is relevant to my teaching and interests, but these presentations allowed me to hear about findings beyond my own current level of knowledge. “Mind blowing” is the way I would describe these talks to my students! I hope they learn from the information I have gathered here.

First, the session description:

Plastic pollution caused by human activities is everywhere. Beaches covered with plastic bottles, bags, and straws attest to the problem. Microplastics, tiny pieces ranging from a few millimeters to microns in size, are less obvious, but ubiquitous. They have various sources, but the most abundant type in many areas are microfibers from synthetic textiles such as polyester, which can shed thousands of fibers when used or machine-washed. Many of these fibers are too tiny to be trapped in filters and they flow into sewage systems. Some are trapped by sewage treatment plants, but many enter aquatic systems where they number in the trillions or quadrillions. As they are plastic, they do not readily break down. Found everywhere, even in the deepest parts of the ocean, microplastics can attract chemical pollutants from the water and may be eaten by plankton and larger filter feeders such as clams and oysters. Microfibers and their attached pollutants are passed through food webs, and evidence is growing that eating microplastic harms the health of marine animals. The solution to microfiber pollution may lie in short- and long-term approaches: better filtration systems and the design of synthetic fabrics that do not shed fibers, or switching to natural or biosynthetic alternatives. This session brings together environmental scientists who study microplastic pollution and textile scientists who are developing new synthetic fabrics to discuss the problem and proposed solutions.


 

The first talk was by Dr. Chelsea Rochman (University of Toronto) titled Microfibers: Sources, Effects and Potential Solutions. Her presentation was filled with information and suggested articles for further exploration, such as:

  • Microfibers (“laundry lint”) are another type of microplastic (see the abstract from “Emissions of microplastic fibers from microfiber fleece during domestic washing“)
  • Think back to the microbead, which brought microplastics into the world. Now, there are laws to remove microbeads from beauty products. Microfibers may be the next “microbead” of our time. See Rochman (2018) in Science.
  • Microfibers are the most common plastic debris found in a diversity of fish (but keep in mind there are microplastics in our drinking water and in the air we breathe – see Rochman et al. (2015) in Scientific Reports). So what do microfibers do to food? There isn’t much in the literature about this. But since we actually get more microplastics in our system from breathing than from eating seafood, maybe we should have more concern about the “dust” landing on our food before we eat.
  • It is clear that microfibers are bringing contaminants into nature, but we can help reduce this through mitigation strategies, until we can develop new textiles. See the video clips of two filters that exist to reduce lint going into the environment, and you can explore the website for Lint LUV-R.

 


 

The second talk was by Dr. Melik Demirel (Penn State – yes, THE Pennsylvania State University!), titled Drivers of Plastic Pollution: Technology, Society and State. To get to the exciting part… Dr. Demirel and his colleagues have developed a new fiber from squid genes! This is a list of articles on the Penn State Newswire about his work, and here are some of the highlights from his talk:

  • All microplastics are an end product of petroleum (petroleum-based synthetic fibers).
  • Microplastics are in the blood of 99% Americans.
  • Potential solutions to plastic pollution include not using plastic to begin with, capture the plastic on site (such as the filters mentioned by the previous speaker), discover new ways to eliminate plastic (such as plastic-eating bacteria), or turn to and increase the abundance of biosynthetic fibers (biofibers are excellent alternatives but are expensive – we need new methods of manufacturing).
  • The suction area (suction cups) of squids are excellent for high-strength binding. These squid ring teeth are 100% protein, and these proteins are similar to silk.
  • A product has been created called Squitex – microfibers will not shed if coated with Squitex.
  • View these videos to learn more! (no audio for the first one)

 

The final talk of the session was by back-up presenter Sarah Edwards from Eunomia Research & Consulting, titled Policy Measures to Address Micro-Plastics: Ideas from Europe. Her talking points included:

  • Microplastics come from clothing, but also from tires, artificial turf, etc.
  • Where can policy come in with regards to microplastics? (a) consumer behavior and choice (especially with current teenagers as a throwaway generation, but when we wash, we can also lower the temperature of the water, lower the spin speed, use liquid vs powder, wash clothes less, etc.); (b) design (and label of the clothing – a bill in New York clothing with >50% synthetic fibers should suggest hand washing instead of machine washing); (c) capture in washing machines; (d) capture in wastewater treatment.
  • When developing microplastic policy, one needs to look at the cost – who pays? The producer? Consumer?
  • Microfibers are just one piece of the climate change issue – we need to be careful with labels.
  • Plastics are intentially added to soil/mulch for planting – but no one is currently studying microplastics being taken up by plants.
  • There are biosynthetic spider silk companies (see this example and there is one example in the video below).
  • We need to do more recycling – there is recycling old sneakers for playground surfaces, there is recycling of blue jeans to create building insulation, and there is one town in Sweden that runs entirely on incinerated H&M clothing (clothing deemed unwearable and burned for fuel).
  • This article I found interesting to read and wish I was more aware of these actions being taken by states: New Labeling Requirements: How States and Industry are Tackling Microfibers (from October 2018).

 

Again, another incredible AAAS panel! Although there is still major changes being made to the environment through human activity, I’m inspired by the research and policy work going in to changing the microfiber/microplastic generation.

On to more sessions…

 

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