Recycling has been promoted by the plastics industry as a key solution to the growing problem of plastic waste. But a study has found recycling itself could be releasing huge quantities of microplastics.
An international team of scientists sampled wastewater from a state-of-the-art recycling plant at an undisclosed location in the UK. They found that the microplastics released in the water amounted to 13% of the plastic processed.
“I was incredibly shocked,” said Erina Brown, the lead researcher of the study, conducted at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. “It’s scary because recycling has been designed in order to reduce the problem and to protect the environment. This is a huge problem we’re creating.”
The researchers tested the water before and after the plant installed a water filtration system and found the filter reduced the concentration of microplastics from 13% of the plastic processed to 6%.
The estimate of 75bn particles a cubic metre is for a plant with a filter installed. A majority of the particles were smaller than 10 microns, about the diameter of a human red blood cell, with more than 80% smaller than five microns, Brown said.