Microplastics in the Antarctic marine system were found in samples from three different species of penguins: the Gentoo, the Chinstrap, and the Adélie penguin. The study was conducted by scientists from the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid and has demonstrated the widespread presence of microplastics in the Antarctic region despite the low human activity on the continent. Scientists analyzed samples from these three species over several years and different geographical areas.
The finding highlights the scope of plastic pollution and the need to make greater efforts to recycle plastic waste.
How did microplastics reach the Antarctic region?
Marine currents, research stations, fishing, and tourism activity all contribute to these particles spreading and reaching new areas.
In the case of penguins, microplastics were found in their diet, mainly through the krill, a crustacean similar to a small shrimp. Microfragments are less than 5 millimeters long and often enter the food chain through small fish, invertebrates, and other organisms that feed larger animals until they eventually reach our dinner plates.
The effects of micro-and nanoplastics on the human body have not been proved. Nevertheless, tests in other species showed liver damage and alterations in sperm and egg production in the animals exposed to certain microparticles.
Regarding the impact of microplastics on aquatic fauna, they often cause intestinal obstructions in turtles and birds which cause animals to be unable to feed themselves until they finally die.
| What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long. These fragments are usually found in everyday products such as cosmetics, toothpaste, detergents, or scrubs.
Plastic pollution in figures
According to the UN reports on single-use plastics, the data shows that:
- We produce near 300 million tonnes of plastic, almost the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population.
- Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. Some 12% has been incinerated while the remaining 79% has accumulated in landfills and the environment.
- About 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year, mostly coming from 10 rivers, such as the Yangtze or the Indus, among others.
- By 2050, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish, if current trends continue.
How can we reduce microplastics pollution?
More than 99% of plastics come from unclean sources: petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Besides that, most plastic items never fully disappear, they break up into smaller and smaller pieces.
For all these reasons, the number of countries setting measures to regulate plastic pollution is increasing. For instance, the EU adopted a Directive banning single-use plastics which came into force on July 3; and included measures to restrict certain plastic items in the European Union.
Canada has also implemented regulations on microbeads from imports of cosmetics and cleaning products. The measures also included reaching an objective of zero waste on plastic microbeads following the Microbeads in Toiletries Regulations plan.
In general, there is a growing concern about the environmental impact of plastic waste.
Plastic recycling and energy recovery systems
Aside from reducing plastic production and banning single-use plastics, it is essential to recycle plastic waste and use waste-to-energy systems (WtE systems) for value recovery like REVALUO, a low-carbon technology that does not burn waste.
REVALUO WtE system can produce bunker fuel from plastic waste and end-of-life tires (ELTs). Depending on the composition of the plastic material, it can produce an average of 350 – 550 kg of bunker fuel per tonne.
Besides that, the process also produces charcoal and the thermal energy produced in the process can be used to supply the thermolysis plant itself and other facilities depending on the power required.
Depending on the country and the degree of development of the industry, revenues from energy recovery may be higher than those from selling products made from recycled plastic.
| Reasons to implement plastic recycling systems
✔ Plastic does not disappear, it accumulates in the natural environment.
✔ More plastic is produced than it is recycled.
✔ Saves energy and reduces the consumption of raw materials.
✔ Awareness is rising from governments and organizations.
✔ It is taken into account by citizens and consumers.
✔ Contributes to new jobs creation.
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