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The Mediterranean and Baltic Seas contain some of the highest levels of plastic pollution in the world. A new EU-financed collaboration between universities and companies will develop technologies for wastewater treatment plants and waterways that can stop the flow.
The five plastic hotspots of the high seas tend to get most of the attention, but in the Mediterranean Sea, the problem of plastic pollution is similarly severe. Estimates show that the Mediterranean, with its heavily populated coastal areas, has among the world’s highest concentrations of larger pieces of plastic debris. In the Baltic Sea, off Europe’s northern coast, microplastics are also rapidly accumulating. - reports the article of News Deeply.
That’s why the European Union is funding the majority of a new $7.1 million (6 million euro) research collaboration to test and scale up new technologies to intercept plastics before they enter the Mediterranean and Baltic seas. The four-year project, called CLAIM (Cleaning Marine Litter by Developing and Applying Innovative Methods), involves 19 research and business partners across 15 countries.
The goal of CLAIM, said project co-coordinate and marine biologist Nikoleta Bellou, is to move technologies to reduce plastic pollution out of laboratories and into real-world use. Wastewater treatment plants were a logical place to start.
Of the 5–12 million metric tons of plastic entering the marine environment in a single year, much of it is microplastics and microfibers, which are washed down sink drains and shed from clothing. These plastics are so small that they’re hard for wastewater treatment plants to filter out using existing technologies.
Researchers are now working to develop better filters to remove microplastics at wastewater plants and will also develop a photocatalytic device intended to degrade even smaller nanoparticles of common plastics like PVC, nylon or polypropylene in the water. While ultraviolet radiation breaks down plastic, it’s usually a very slow process, Bellou said. The photocatalytic device will use nanocoatings that can essentially jump-start the reaction. Though the device is still only in the research and development phase, the team aims to get it ready for testing within the project’s time frame. In the far longer term, she believes similar technology could even be used in homes.
Another team partnering with CLAIM is working on a small-scale pyrolyzer, which uses a thermal-chemical process to convert plastics into a combustible gas and recyclable waste. The idea would be to mount the device on boats, which could collect and break down plastic on the go. The team at IRIS, an Italian startup behind the project, says a big benefit is that pyrolysis doesn’t produce dioxins and furans, both toxic compounds that are usually released if plastics are burned. The excess heat and combustible gas produced by the process, called syngas, can be used on the boat and at port to generate electricity or heat water.
Overall, for every technology being developed through CLAIM, the focus is on proving economic feasibility, social acceptance and encouraging adoption, Bellou said. However, she believes that stronger government policies will eventually be needed before the private sector will truly take on the plastic pollution problem. “There’s always conflict of who’s responsible for what, especially because the seas … don’t have borders,” she said.
Some environmentalists are cautious about embracing the kinds of solutions being tested through CLAIM’s work. Abby Barrows, a microplastics researcher with the nonprofit Adventure Scientists, said the focus on removing plastics from wastewater is important, but she worries about technologies that further enable “continuous management” of plastic pollution, rather than reducing its use in the first place. It’s also important, she said, to think about the energy consumption and potential environmental consequences of new treatment and filtration technologies themselves.
“We all need to be working together toward solutions, and cleaning up pollution is part of moving forward, but we also really need to rethink our use of disposable plastic, as well as the design of synthetic textiles,” she said.
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