Here’s a sobering fact pointed out by a team of students in Canada: Every piece of plastic that has ever been manufactured is still somewhere on Earth. (Actually that’s not entirely true; we’ve probably managed to launch some of it into space on now-derelict satellites.)
Rather than biodegrading, plastic simply breaks down into smaller and smaller particles over time, and that’s when real trouble starts. It’s relatively easy for a plogger to pick up a plastic bottle on a beach; it’s not so easy to sift through sand to recover plastic chips, shards and particles.
Enter aforementioned team of students from the University of Sherbrooke. Here’s the problem they observed:
For several years, the plastic waste that ends on [Hawaii’s] Kamilo Beach has been breaking down into increasingly fine particles. Thus, the more time passes, the harder it gets to collect the plastic on the beach. That’s why the larger particles are collected first. However, it’s the small particles, that remain on the beach, that are the most damaging to our environment.
In fact, animals confuse plastic particles with insects or other living organisms and ingest them. Plastic therefore enters the food chain and poisons it. In addition to eating plastic, animals are exposed to additives contained in the plastics. These toxic products accumulate and concentrate in organisms up the food chain. This is why we must act and remove microplastics from the environment of the beach.
To tackle the tricky problem of extracting plastic particles that have washed up on beaches, they invented a vacuuming and sorting machine called the Hoola One:
Next the team hopes to transport the machine to Hawaii to test it out. You can follow their progress on their Facebook page.