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Plastic Recycling Releases Massive Amounts of Microplastics Into the Environment, Study Reveals

Published: May 24, 2023
A crane lifts plastics for recycling at a waste treatment plant in Palma de Mallorca on March 28, 2023. (Image: JAIME REINA/AFP via Getty Images)

A study, conducted at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow has found that wastewater from a state-of-the-art recycling plant at an undisclosed location in the UK, is releasing massive amounts of microplastics into the environment, with the plastic even being found in the air around the plant. 

Erina Brown, the lead researcher of the study told The Guardian, “I was incredibly shocked. It’s scary because recycling has been designed in order to reduce the problem and to protect the environment. This is a huge problem we’re creating.”

The researchers estimated that 75 billion plastic particles were present in each cubic meter of wastewater. 

The wastewater was tested before and after a filtration system was installed and the researchers found that the system reduced the concentration of microplastics released from 13 percent down to six percent. 

“The estimate of 75bn particles a cubic metre is for a plant with a filter installed,” The Guardian reported adding that Brown said, “A majority of the particles were smaller than 10 microns, about the diameter of a human red blood cell, with more than 80% smaller than five microns.”

Microplastics were also found in the air around the plant, with 61 percent of the particles being less than 10 microns in size.

The facility examined in the study was a “best case scenario” Brown said, adding that “An important consideration is what other plants globally are emitting. This is something we really need to find out.” 


Microplastics are everywhere

According to WebMD, and others, microplastics have been found practically everywhere on the planet, including in the food we eat and even our blood and women’s breast milk. However it remains unclear just what kind of threat they pose to human health. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) said in a report released in August 2022 that “Although the limited data provide little evidence that nano- and microplastic particles have adverse effects in humans, there is increasing public awareness and an overwhelming consensus among all stakeholders that plastics do not belong in the environment, and measures should be taken to mitigate exposure.”

While the science remains unsettled, researchers say there is still cause for concern. 

In a study by a team of researchers at the UK’s University of Plymouth that compared the threat from eating contaminated mussels and the threat of microplastics in a home environment, they found that “people will take in more plastic by inhaling or ingesting tiny, invisible plastic fibers floating in the air around them — fibers shed by their own clothes, carpets, and upholstery — than they will by eating mussels.”

A professor emeritus of ecotoxicology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Dick Vethaak, co-authored a blood study where he found microplastics in people’s blood. Surprisingly,  he didn’t find the results alarming, however told National Geographic, “Yes, we should be concerned. Plastics should not be in your blood.”


Plastic pervasive in the global food supply

A recent study by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, found that micro and nanoplastics have been found throughout the food supply and may be impacting food safety on a global scale. 

The study revealed that plastics are present in a variety of food, including seafood, meat, chicken, rice, water and even fresh produce. 

Dr. Jordi Nelis, an analytical chemist with CSIRO, food safety specialist and the lead author of the study, said plastics enter the food supply in various ways, but a primary way is through food processing and packaging. 

“Fresh food for example can be plastic free when it’s picked or caught but contain plastics by the time it’s been handled, packaged and makes its way to us,” he said according to  

“Machinery, cutting boards, plastic wrapping can all deposit micro and nanoplastics onto our food that we then consume. This study highlights the need to understand what plastic could end up in food to manage food safety and security,” he added.

It’s not only plastic that is posing a risk but also the additives in plastics that are leaching into the broader environment. 

Regarding the health risks posed by microplastics and their additives, Nelis says it’s still up for debate.

“The key missing information is determining safe levels of microplastics. We currently don’t know exactly what the microplastic flux through the food system is or which levels can be considered safe,” he told

The only thing consumers can do to limit their exposure is to limit the amount of plastics they consume. 

CSIRO is on a mission to eliminate plastic waste, aiming to reduce the amount of plastic entering the Australian environment by 80 percent by 2030.