Partnership aims to reduce pollution from 'microplastics'

June 5, 2013
Researcher Kory Angstadt uses a stir plate to prepare microbeads in the laboratory at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Credit: David Malmquist/VIMS

If you've been on or near the water, you've seen it—the plastic trash that litters oceans, lakes, and streams worldwide. But visible plastic—soda bottles, lighters, flip-flops, combs, rope—may be the least of the problem. Scientists are beginning to realize that what you can't see, tiny bits of polyethylene or polypropylene called "microplastics," likely pose a greater threat to marine ecosystems.

Now, a grant to researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science will help them develop and test a biodegradable replacement for one of the two main sources of microplastic—the "microbeads" found in scores of such as , sunscreen, shampoo, soap, lip gloss, and moisturizers. Microplastics also form from the breakdown of larger pieces of .

The $60,000 grant, from the Virginia Innovation Partnership, was awarded to VIMS researchers Dr. Kirk Havens and assistant professor Donna Bilkovic. They'll collaborate on the project with Drs. Jason McDevitt, Director of William & Mary's Technology Transfer Office, Charles Bott of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, and David Holbrook of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The merit of the project was recognized with a TechConnect Innovation Award during the recent TechConnect-National Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C.

"Microplastics have become a big concern in the world's oceans and estuaries," says Havens. "We already know that larger plastic items can harm organisms like turtles, seabirds, and fish by interfering with digestion or through strangulation; a concern with microplastics is that they're even more widely dispersed, and small enough to be eaten by a much more diverse group of organisms. Once ingested, these compounds and anything they've absorbed can be magnified up the food chain."

VIMS professor Rob Hale, an expert on marine toxic chemicals, says in a recent interview with Bay Journal reporter Karl Blankenship, "Depending on their size and composition, plastics may release previously bound-up chemicals into the water as they break into particles. At the same time, limited research suggests the changing composition of the smaller plastic bits may make it easier for them to absorb other chemicals that may be in the water." Tests have shown that some small plastic particles readily take up persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the now-banned insecticide DDT.

These are PHA microbeads produced in the laboratory at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Credit: David Malmquist/VIMS

"When something comes along and eats [a piece of microplastic]," Hale adds, "they have basically ingested a pill of chemicals." To date, scientists have found evidence of ingestion of microplastics by marine worms, tiny crustacean grazers like amphipods, and filter feeders like mussels and barnacles.

To address the microplastic problem, Havens, Bilkovic, and colleagues Kory Angstadt and David Stanhope are working to develop microbeads from a family of naturally occurring "biopolyesters" that are produced by several types of soil-dwelling bacteria. Previous tests have shown that these compounds—known as PHAs—are completely biodegradable by microbes typically found in seawater, which break them down into water, carbon dioxide, and other simple molecules.

Equally important, PHAs appear to have the properties needed for use in cosmetic products, including the ability to provide a slightly gritty feel for skin cleansers and toothpaste, and to reduce the appearance of wrinkles through "optical blurring." Sales of cosmetics and toiletries topped $36 billion in the United States in 2010, with skin-care products accounting for 25% of the total.

Another important property of PHAs is that they are slightly more dense than the plastics in current microbeads. "PHAs sink in water," says Havens. "That makes them more likely to biodegrade in septic tanks and wastewater treatment plants. The plastics in current microbeads are buoyant, increasing their chance of floating right through septic and sewage systems and into estuaries and other marine ecosystems."

This isn't the first time that the VIMS team has turned to PHA, having used it previously to develop a biodegradable panel that is now commercially available to address the problem of continued fishing by abandoned crab pots and lobster traps. Previous research by the team revealed that Chesapeake Bay watermen lose about 20% of their crab pots to storms and boat propellers each year. Outfitting these metal-mesh "ghost pots" with a biodegradable escape hatch allows any marine life that might enter such a pot to subsequently swim free.

For the current project, the VIMS team has already begun creating batches of microbeads in the laboratory, testing various formulations and processes for producing beads of different color and size—from 1 to 100 microns (a typical human hair is about 100 microns across).

The team's next step is to collaborate with Charles Bott of the Hampton Roads Sanitation District and his "sequencing batch reactor"—essentially a lab-sized wastewater treatment plant—to test how completely their microbeads will biodegrade in this setting. Dr. David Holbrook of the National Institute of Standards and Technology will provide expertise and the specialized instruments needed to determine how fast PHAs might disappear from the wastewater stream.

"The idea," says Havens, "is that our will biodegrade quickly, within septic tanks, wastewater treatment plants, and smaller tributaries; before they ever reach the Bay. It's a proactive approach to reducing microplastic pollution."

Explore further: Scientists find tiny fragments of plastic in the digestive systems of fish pulled from the English Channel

Related Stories

Microplastic pollution prevalent in lakes too

May 28, 2013

EPFL researchers have detected microplastic pollution in one of Western Europe's largest lakes, Lake Geneva, in large enough quantities to raise concern. While studies in the ocean have shown that these small bits of plastic ...

Microplastics endanger ocean health

May 17, 2012

Tiny pieces of plastic contaminate almost every sea in the world. Now scientists have found that marine creatures like fish and birds are eating this microscopic waste, which may be harming their health.

Polluting plastic particles invade the Great Lakes

April 9, 2013

Floating plastic debris—which helps populate the infamous "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" in the Pacific Ocean—has become a problem in the Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Scientists reported on ...

Recommended for you

Concurrent hot and dry summers more common in future: study

June 28, 2017

A combination of severe drought and a heatwave caused problems for Russia in the summer of 2010: fires tore through forests and peat bogs. Moscow was shrouded in thick smog, causing many deaths in the local population. At ...

The common insecticide poisoning our rivers and wetlands

June 28, 2017

Urban streams and wetlands play an important role in the proper functioning of our cities. They protect our houses from floods, provide green spaces for recreation, trap and breakdown pollutants and provide valuable habitats ...

2020 deadline to avert climate catastrophe: experts

June 28, 2017

Humanity must put carbon dioxide emissions on a downward slope by 2020 to have a realistic shot at capping global warming at well under two degrees Celsius, the bedrock goal of the Paris climate accord, experts said Wednesday.

Climate change impacts Antarctic biodiversity habitat

June 28, 2017

Ice-free areas of Antarctica - home to more than 99 per cent of the continent's terrestrial plants and animals - could expand by more than 17,000km2 by the end of this century, a study published today in Nature reveals.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.