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Study shows recycling can release huge quantities of microplastics

Billed as a key solution to the climate crisis, recycling could be releasing huge quantities of microplastics itself, according to a new study.

The vast majority of our plastic waste winds up in landfill, bonfires, and in our natural environment, but how efficiently is the 9% that is recycled dealt with?

A new study conducted by an international team of scientists claims that recycling plants inadvertently create staggering amounts of microplastic, bringing our current means of disposal management into disrepute.

The researchers sampled wastewater from a state-of-the-art recycling plant in an undisclosed location within the UK. They made the alarming discovery that microplastic content released in the water amounted to 13% of all plastic processed. That represents straight up failure.

Despite being fitted with the most contemporary systems, this particular facility could reportedly be releasing up to 75bn plastic particles per cubic meter of wastewater. It begs the question: just how bad might our oversight be globally?

‘I was incredibly shocked,’ said Erina Brown, lead researcher of the study conducted at the University of Strathclyde, 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’.

What makes these findings even more sobering is that the 75bn estimate applies to recycling plants with filters installed, many of which don’t. It also doesn’t take into account the high levels of microplastics found in the air around the facility, with 61% of the trace under 10 microns – a size scientifically linked with human illness.

Despite these shocking figures, the findings have been described as the ‘best case scenario’ by Brown given the operation in question had invested in contemporary safeguards.

The same study suggests that prior to the installation of filtration systems, the recycling plant had discharged up to 2,933 metric tons of microplastics annually. Today, the total waste has been reduced to around 1,366 a year, but further protections are obviously needed.

‘More than 90% of the particles we found were under 10 microns and 80% were under 5 microns,’ Brown says. ‘These are digestible by so many different organisms and found to be ingested by humans’.

As we await further research to understand the scope of the problem globally, there’s a palpable sense of frustration from ecological experts and activists.

We’ve long known that aspects of our current waste management systems need drastic improvement, but studies like this suggest some may be completely unfit for purpose and indirectly detrimental in other areas.

We’re constantly bombarded with horrendous statistics describing how much plastic is dumped each day, and yet there’s no real assurance that the efforts of everyday people to follow green protocols are making any difference. Something has to change.

It doesn’t inspire any confidence that we’ve still yet to hear what the ‘global plastics treaty’ has planned a year on from its formation.