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Recycling Plants Unknowingly Unleash Microplastics: A Hidden Danger

Recycling is an essential practice to save our planet. However, a recent study reveals that recycling plants may inadvertently release large amounts of hazardous microplastics. These tiny plastic particles, less than 5 millimeters in size, pose a significant threat to both the environment and human health, as they can enter the food chain and accumulate in living organisms.

Led by Erina Brown from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, an international team of scientists sampled wastewater from a UK recycling plant and discovered that microplastics in the water amounted to 13% of the plastic processed. This means the facility could release up to 75 billion plastic particles per cubic meter of wastewater. The findings were published in the Journal of Hazardous Material Advances.

The plant's water filtration system managed to reduce the microplastic concentration from 13% to 6%. However, the majority of the particles were smaller than 10 microns, with 80% being smaller than 5 microns. These tiny particles can easily infiltrate the environment and pose a risk to human health, as particulate matter less than 10 microns has been linked to various human illnesses.

High levels of microplastics were also found in the air around the recycling facility, emphasizing the potential dangers of these particles. The recycling plant discharged up to 2,933 metric tonnes of microplastics per year before the water filtration system was implemented. After its installation, this number was reduced to 1,366 metric tonnes per year, highlighting the need for better management and monitoring of microplastic pollution in recycling facilities.

Globally, only 9% of the 370 million metric tonnes of plastic produced gets recycled, with the majority of plastic waste ending up in landfills or the environment, where it can take hundreds of years to decompose. Recycling is a crucial component of waste management, but this study reveals that even recycling facilities can contribute to the growing microplastic pollution problem.

Judith Enck, a former US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official and current leader of the Beyond Plastics lobby group, emphasizes the importance of addressing this issue. With growing awareness of microplastics' harmful effects on the environment and human health, it's essential for recycling facilities to minimize their release of these particles.

In conclusion, while recycling is a vital practice in our fight against plastic pollution, this study sheds light on the hidden dangers of microplastics generated during the process. It serves as a reminder that there's still much work to be done to improve recycling processes and minimize the release of hazardous microplastics. Addressing this lesser-known threat within our recycling plants is crucial as we strive for a greener future.