Words by Tess Becker
Southerners in the United States are overtly aware of the mainstay, okra – a vegetable popular in a host of southern-inspired dishes like gumbo, some stews, or just fried on its own.
But it may soon have a use outside the kitchen.
Researchers at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth, Texas may have found a way to solve the growing microplastic problem by filtering water through okra.
In a study, the researchers found that planet extracts from the okra have the power to remove microplastics from wastewater.
The long-term health effects of microplastics are unclear, but studies suggest that people unintentionally consume tens of thousands of particles every year.
“We think that microplastics by themselves may not be much of a health hazard, but anything they get into or any type of toxic substance that gets attached to them could go inside our bodies and cause problems,” said Associate Professor Srinivasan, the principal investigator for the project.
The typical way to remove microplastics from water is by skimming the top of the water or by adding flocculants, sticky chemicals that attract microplastics, to the water and waiting for them to form large clumps that sink to the bottom and can then be removed.
Those flocculants can be toxic and don’t serve to fully remove microplastics efficiently, so researchers were looking for a cleaner alternative and came across okra.
“The whole treatment method with the nontoxic materials uses the same infrastructure,” Srinivasan said. “We don't have to build something new to incorporate these materials for water treatment purposes.”
The study found that components from okra and fenugreek were best for removing microplastics from ocean water, while a combo of okra and tamarind worked best for freshwater. The best part is that if successful, these plant-based flocculants can be easily implemented in existing water treatment facilities.