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Okra may help filter out microplastics

Words by Smiley Team

Recent news has caused quite the controversy when scientists found microplastics in human blood for the first time. 

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are the result of plastic pollution and the breakdown of the materials. Studies show microplastics can have adverse effects on human cells, and the scientists that found the plastics in human blood found it in 17 of 22 subjects. Some samples even contained two or three types of plastic. 

In general, microplastics are causing catastrophic damage to ecosystems, animals, and humans alike. A research team in Texas is trying to find ways to more efficiently remove them from our water using plant extracts from things like okra. 

“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,” Associate Professor Rajani Srinivasan, the principal investigator for the project said in a press release.

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The current system for removing microplastics and plastic waste from water is to add flocculants, or sticky chemicals, that attract microplastics and form large clumps. The clumps then sink to the bottom of the water and can be separated from it.

But those chemicals can be potentially harmful and introduce outside pollutants to the water that wouldn’t otherwise be there. 

“It doesn’t help if we try to clean up water but add potentially toxic substances to remove the pollutants,” Dr. Srinivasan said.

'Okra worked the best'

In contrast, Dr. Srinivasan and her team are looking to use plant polymers as explicitly non-toxic flocculants. In the research, the team tested polysaccharide extracts from 7 plants: fenugreek, cactus, aloe vera, okra, tamarind, and psyllium. They tested compounds from the individual plants as well as in different combinations.

They found that polysaccharides from okra worked the best. Paired with fenugreek extract, microplastics could be removed from ocean water, and the okra paired with those from tamarind worked best for freshwater samples.

The research found that these flocculants worked as well or better than the chemical flocculants, and these plant-based flocculants could be used in existing water filtration infrastructure. 

“The whole treatment method with the non-toxic materials uses the same infrastructure,” said Dr. Srinivasan. “We don’t have to build something new to incorporate these materials for water treatment purposes.”

Inspired to act?

SUPPORT: Check out The Ocean Cleanup, they work to clean up plastic and other waste from the ocean.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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