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Eco-friendly Gifts Blog: What Are Nanoplastics?

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When conventional plastics break down, via heat, light or reaction with water, the natural components that would be otherwise formed via biodegradation - CO2, biomass and water, are not produced.

Instead, smaller pieces of plastic are formed, as well as greenhouse gases such as methane. In this blog, we will be going over macroplastics, microplastics and nanoplastics. The definitions, effects and data of these different sizes of plastic are all included. 

What Are Nanoplastics?

To avoid wasting anyone's time, nanoplastics are pieces of plastic no bigger than 100 nanometers in any dimension. What is a nanometer? A million nanometers make up one millimeter. Have a look at the chart below to see a scale of millimeters vs nanometers.

nanometers vs millimeters

Nanometers are only a classification of plastic based on size, it is not any different to microplastics or macroplastics in terms of content. 

Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are less than 5mm in all dimensions, while macroplastics are just larger items of plastic, like water bottles and carrier bags to name a couple. 

Conventional plastic is what we know as 'plastic'. Conventional plastics are materials built from polymers, which are long chains of repeating molecular sequences. 

Conventional plastic does not have the ability to biodegrade. If a material is biodegradable, it can break down into biomass, CO2 and water with the aid of microorganisms.

Since conventional plastics cannot biodegrade, they break down by three main mechanisms: by heat (thermolysis), by light (photolysis) and from the reaction with water (hydrolysis).

When conventional plastics break down, they degrade into smaller pieces of plastic, as well as giving off greenhouse gases such as methane.

Nanoplastics, as well as microplastics, can be primary or secondary. Primary nanoplastics have been produced to be the size they are, whereas secondary nanoplastics have formed from larger pieces of plastic degrading.  

A key point to add is that biodegradable plastics have also been found to form nanoplastics, when they degrade abiotically (without microorganisms causing biodegradation). 

The study found that PHB, a biodegradable plastic produced from renewable resources, does have the potential to form secondary nanoplastics, and induce a significant decrease in cell growth. 

This all shows the importance of composting, and ensuring that biodegradable & compostable bioplastics do not end up in the natural environment.

With the new studies coming out showing that even bio based biodegradable bioplastics have the potential to form secondary nanoplastics when they degrade abiotically, it is clear that end of life processes are key in making a product environmentally sustainable. 

A key part of any material being sustainable is the end of life process, and this common sense idea has been discarded in the public's mind, as it is now expected for plastic to end up in the ocean, which is leading producers to make decisions assuming their product will end up in the natural environment.

Clearly, when seen from a distance, this is insane. We cannot continue to make products assuming they will be used once, and then thrown in the ocean. 

Antibiotic Resistance From Plastic Pollution

Another lesser known effect of plastic pollution is antibiotic resistance, which is the ability of microbes to resist antibiotics. 

Plastic has the ability to attract persistent organic pollutants, which are disease carrying microbes. Persistent organic pollutants are ever present in the environment. 

Scientists in Northern Ireland conducted experiments to kill these microbes, as well as other bacteria found on plastic packaging found on the Irish coastline. They attempted to kill the bacteria by using 10 commonly used antibiotics. 

98% of these bacteria were resistant to ampicillin, one of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics given to common infections. 

As plastics break down, generating a higher surface area, these bacteria have more physical space to develop and colonize. This means that microplastics

In the future, we could start seeing a situation where researchers conducting experiments on plastic debris in the natural environment, are themselves becoming sick from coming into contact with these microbes. From there, these researchers could become vectors for the bacteria to spread throughout the population, infecting people that the researchers come into contact with.

Because the harboured bacteria are resistant to common antibiotics, the chances of fighting the infection spread will be decreased, leading to higher infection rates amongst the population. 

Through the process of the trophic transfer of microplastics, humans and other predators high up in the food chain could be ingesting antibiotic resistant microbes. This, again, could lead to population numbers becoming sick from ingesting these microbes.

Going on from this point, microplastics kill immune cells three times faster than immune cells that do not come into contact with microplastics. 

A compromised immune system, combined with an increase in bacteria entering the body, could lead to populations becoming infected. 

Health Effects Of Nanoplastics

Nanoplastics have the ability to enter the bloodstream, accumulate in organs, and even pass through the blood brain barrier. This barrier is crucial in keeping harmful substances, including plastics and microbes, out of the brain. 

The brain, when nanoplastics have passed through the barrier, has shown to influence the behaviour of organisms and animals. Zooplankton, when fed with nanoplastic particles less than 50nm, were killed 50% of the time.

Moving up the food chain, carp, when fed these nanoplastic carrying zooplankton, changed their behaviour. They swam slower, lost more weight, and explored less of their environment. The carp with the behaviour changes were studied, and it was found that the nanoplastics fed to the zooplankton, which were fed to the carp, were in the brains of the carp.

What if we are all influenced by plastic right now? What if we all have nanoplastic particles in our brains, and our behaviour is being changed? This may sound sci-fi, but with the research just mentioned, it is entirely possible. 

A key thing to take into account here is the relative physical size of human brains relative to carp brains. If the mass of nanoplastics required to have an effect on behaviour is relative to the size of the brain, then it is possible to assume we are less likely to be affected on the scale as carp and the other researched organisms.  

Current Plastic Disposal Methods

Many of the problems relating to nanoplastics in this blog are all down to improper disposal, which means nanoplastics are ending up in the natural environment. Even though marine plastic pollution is more visible, it is estimated that terrestrial microplastic (slightly off topic from nanoplastic) pollution can be up to 23 times more prevalent than in marine environments. 

We live in a single use culture, where the main requirement for producers to fulfill is convenience. Currently, this convenience comes as the expense of the environment, as we are seeing from the fossil fuel emissions from plastic production, and plastic pollution. 

Plastic pollution shows two things: too much plastic is being produced, and that we don't know how to sustainably manage the end of life for plastic. 

Currently, the three main disposal methods for conventional plastic are landfill, recycling and incineration. 

None of these are sustainable. 

Landfills result in the surrounding environment being polluted with toxic leachate, as well as taking up physical space. We are running out of space to build landfills in, which means that if we continue to use landfill as a disposal method, we will eventually run out of space. 

Recycling is not sustainable or efficient, which can be shown by the amount of fully' recyclable' plastic bottles in the ocean. If recycling was efficient, there wouldn't be any recyclable plastic pollution. Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, leaving the other 91% to go to landfill, incineration or the natural environment. 

Incineration is dangerous in developing countries where much of the UK's waste is sent. Toxic emissions are released when plastic is burnt uncontrollably in open environments, with carbon monoxide being a gas released from the process.

Solutions To Plastic Pollution

Stop making plastic.

Sustainable End Of Life Processes

If we want to continue making plastic, however, then efficient disposal methods must be put in place. 

We touched on composting a little earlier, so let's go into how composting can be sustainable, and what it's problems are currently.

At this point in time, industrial composting is a technology not widely available to the population at large. With advertisers emitting crucial information on 'compostable' packaging, confusion has been raised over what it means for a material to be compostable. 

Because of the lack of widespread infrastructure when it comes to industrial composting, many industrially compostable items are entering the waste stream of conventional plastic recycling. When certain compostable bioplastics such as PLA are mixed in with conventional plastic such as PVC, recycling contamination can occur. This means that the contaminated waste stream will not be recycled, and will be sent to landfill or incinerated. 

However inefficient the current recycling system is, contaminating it will only make things worse. 

Because industrial composting is not widely available, we have developed LFHP Zero, our industrial composting scheme which means your compostable gifts can be fully composted for free. 

In the future, we want to be a zero to landfill business overall. This means building on LFHP Zero, and introducing new gifts that can be independently recycled by the manufacturers. We are currently developing zero to landfill schemes for clothing, candles and a few other areas. 

Nanoplastics: The Conclusion

With this blog, we have gone over what nanoplastics are, what the effects are and what can be done about them going forward in the future.

New research is being conducted all the time into plastic pollution, whether it be macro, micro or nano. We need to understand the possible health defects of plastic, as it could be a lot worse that what we understand it to be now.

If you would like to read more about nanoplastics, microplastics and all other things to do with environmental science, feel free to subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.