The Technological Challenges of Dealing With Plastics in the Environment
October 2019, Marine Technology Society Journal
Plastic pollution has been at the forefront of national news and social media with shocking images of wildlife impacted with plastics. Plastics are found in remote places, from mountain tops to the bottom of the oceans and from the North Pole to Antarctica, and are a sign of the widespread impact of human activities. Plastics that are the most known to the public are the macroplastics (in other words, “the ones we can easily see”); because we use them on a daily basis, they are an integrative part of our life (from the grocery plastic bag to the water bottle or the parts of car or furniture) and are the ones that we consider “disposable” and of single-use (like straws and plastic utensils or cups).
“And so what?” one might ask. The problem with these plastics is that they were made to last “forever,” meaning that their degradation in the environment is slow, although over the years, these macroplastics undergo weathering and break down in smaller and smaller pieces (called microplastics) that are easier to enter the foodweb. Once in these biological processes that are critical for the well-being of ecosystem functions, the effects of microplastics are still not fully understood, although they are widely accepted to be negative. This is exacerbated by the fact that it is difficult (if not impossible) to remove such microplastics from the environment. Or, at least, the technology of today to do so at such a large scale is still not ready.
Hence, most of the technological innovations related to plastic targets the macroplastics only; even though this size fraction might not be the most abundant or damaging, at least, it can be removed and hence prevent its further fragmentation in the environment. In this article, we briefly identify the technologies that are proposed to address the issues of macroplastics in the oceans, while addressing the research and policy framework of this global issue in human society.