Dr. Natalia Ivleva of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has researched the danger of microplastic pollution.
Dr Ivleva developed new analytical methods for the identification and quantification of microplastic and has discussed her findings and opinions on microplastic pollution with the public.
The quantity of microplastic in the environment
Microplastic is defined as a piece of plastic measuring between once micrometer and five millimetres.
Microplastics are usually formed from the breakdown of larger plastic pieces. These come from a range of products, such as shopping bags, car tires, or microfibre clothing. According to Ivleva, some manufacturers still add microplastic to personal care products such as toothpaste, so they are another source of microplastic pollution.
Ivleva said: “Each year, humans produce around 400 million tons of plastic worldwide. A significant proportion of this plastic ends up in the environment as litter, and most types of plastic take several hundred years to completely degrade.”
How dangerous is microplastic pollution?
Due to lack of reliability in current methods of distinguishing microplastic particles from , not enough is known about the extent of microplastic pollution. There are various methods that can be used. For example, Ivleva explains that thermal analysis paired with gas chromatography and mass spectrometry is used to determine the quantity and types of plastic particles and additives, but these methods cannot be used to determine particle sizes. Ivleva explained: “Actually, it’s not yet totally clear just how dangerous microplastics are for living organisms. What is known: aquatic organisms and other species, including humans, can absorb microplastic particles.”
According to Ivleva, pectroscopic methods can be used to determine both the chemical fingerprint as well as the size and shape of microplastic particles, and infrared micro-spectroscopy can even be used to automatically analyze particles down to the size of 20 micrometers.
The TUM Institute of Hydrochemistry is using Raman microscopic analysis in their research to determine whether a particle is made of synthetic polymers, or if it is instead a natural substance.
Should we plastic production be banned?
Ivleva concludes: “Plastic is an incredibly versatile material and has a lot of advantages over other materials. That said – it is of paramount importance for us to drastically reduce the amount of plastic we are introducing into the environment. And it’s not just the companies manufacturing plastic that need to shoulder the sole responsibility and burden for this – it is also up to us as consumers to become more responsible in how we use, reuse, recycle and dispose of plastic in the future.”