Humans eat one credit card a week

Large amounts of plastic end up in rivers and oceans every year, harming the environment and potentially human health. However, the global approach to tackling plastics, particularly microplastics, remains limited. Microplastics are almost everywhere, as they’ve been found at the bottom of earth’s deepest ocean trenches and in arctic sea ice.
Now researchers are trying to “pull” them out of the water with magnets, and hope to commercialise them.
Eat plastic: Make one credit card a week
“I think it’s kind of bad that there are colorful pieces of plastic all over the shore.” As a child, Fion Ferreira loved to take long trips to the seaside near his hometown. The cove in Ferreira’s hometown of Baridherh, in southwest Ireland, is littered with pebbles but has accumulated plastic as ferreira has aged — and the beach and water there are now littered with plastic waste. Currently, the world produces millions of tons of plastic waste each year, with at least 10 million tons ending up in the ocean — the equivalent of rushing into a garbage truck every minute.
But at the time, Ferreira didn’t know that visible pieces of plastic weren’t the biggest threat. Microplastics smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter were. They either come directly from products we use every day, or are created by larger plastic objects breaking down in the environment.
Microplastics are found in our clothes, cosmetics and cleaning products. An average laundry wash releases 700,000 microplastic fibers. The fibres, less than 1mm in length, are eaten by fish and even corals when they make their way into rivers and oceans.
Because of their small size, microplastics can pass through filtration systems and are difficult to block or filter out.
A 2018 study showed plastic pollution in bottled water, too. Ninety-three percent of 259 bottled water samples examined by the scientists contained microplastics. They even detected plastic particles larger than a human hair in bottled water, at more than 10 per liter. So we’re constantly ingesting microplastics in our daily lives.
A 2019 study by scientists at Newcastle University in the UK found that globally, the average person consumes 5 grams of plastic a week — the equivalent of a credit card. Very little is known about the impact of these microplastic “foods” on human health. What we now know is that chemicals in plastics have been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, heart disease and stunted fetal growth. Some studies have also shown that exposure to microplastics in humans can cause oxidative stress, inflammation and respiratory problems.
Ferreira grew up worrying about microplastics as a chemistry student at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “I was really anxious when I discovered microplastics,” he says. “They’re going to be in our environment for thousands of years and even if we stop using plastic, we’re going to be fretting about how to deal with them for a long time.” Plastic pollution is not only an environmental problem, but also a health problem for all mankind. It’s not just microplastics you’re drinking, it’s the chemicals added to it. However, the microplastic problem has not aroused people’s high attention.
On the other hand, plastics may also help the spread of pathogens, which sometimes have the ability to bind to plastic.
A 2016 study found that vibrio cholerae actually stuck to microplastics in the North And Baltic Seas. Experts predict global plastic production will increase by 60 percent by 2030 and triple by 2050. By then, it is said, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
As she learned more about microplastics’ impact on the environment, Ferreira began looking for ways to combat them. He was inspired by a chance discovery on a beach in his hometown.
Efficient plastic removal: oil + iron oxide + magnet
Initially, Ferreira designed a spectrometer that could measure the density of microplastics in a solution using ultraviolet light. “I can see a lot of microplastics in the water, and they’re not just broken down from big pieces of plastic,” he said. We need to find a way to solve this problem.”
One day ferreira was walking by the sea when inspiration struck. He found a lot of plastic attached to the remnants of the oil floating on the surface, which made him realize that oil seemed to be used to absorb plastic. So Ferreira mixed vegetable oil with powdered iron oxide to make a magnetic liquid, also known as a ferrofluid, and then mixed microplastics found in a variety of everyday objects, including plastic bottles, paint, car tires and water in a washing machine.
When the microplastic attaches to the ferrofluid, Ferreira uses magnets to remove the mixture, leaving only water. More than 5,000 tests have shown that the method can extract microplastics from water with an efficiency of 87 percent. Ferreira is currently designing a special device to capture microplastics in water as it passes by using magnetic extraction. The devices will be small enough to be installed in water pipes to continuously extract plastic particles as water flows through them. He has also been working on developing a system that can be installed on ships to extract plastic from the ocean.
Expanded application: treatment of wastewater and domestic water purification
“There is no perfect solution for removing microplastics from natural waterways,” said Anne-Maric Evelyn, chief operating officer of the Big Bubble Barrier project and an expert in the circular economy. The bubble barrier we created is for relatively large plastics that inevitably end up in the ocean, and our system of bubble pipes along the river effectively traps large pieces of plastic and microparticles as small as 1mm, preventing them from entering the ocean. But for smaller microplastics, Ferreira’s idea seems to be the ultimate solution.”
In 2019, Ferreira presented his invention to a panel of expert judges at the Google Science Challenge (GSF), winning the competition and receiving a $50,000 educational scholarship. Larissa Kelly, ferreira’s mentor at GSF, says of his work: “He observed and solved a problem of global significance. His groundbreaking invention, based on a very simple component, promises to help us solve the world’s microplastic problem.”
After securing funding from the Footprint Alliance, founded by US actor Robert Downey Jr, Ferreira set out to scale up the technology so it could be used in wastewater treatment facilities to prevent microplastics from escaping into the ocean.
He is currently working with an American company to design magic traps made of stainless steel, glass or recycled plastic. He says the new improved technology is fast, cheap, low-power, can be integrated fairly easily into existing facilities and can handle water at normal flow rates.
Ferreira is also developing a device that can be installed in household pipes to provide water that is safe to drink. “I don’t want to drink plastic every day. “If people have the ability to remove microplastics in their home devices, not only will we have health protection, but we will also be able to raise our own awareness of microplastics in some way.” Ferreira is currently testing the devices in different water bodies around the world and hopes to commercialize them within the next two years. Ferreira hopes his work will change the way the world sees young people, and he thinks the world may need more imaginative and innovative technology.

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