A microplastic scourge: student group might have designed the solution

Pete Flint

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Forward-looking: A group of design students in London developed a method of capturing microplastic debris from car tires, one of the leading forms of plastic pollution. The solution also allows the user to recycle the collected debris, potentially minimizing annual tire production altogether.

Depending on where you live, the largest contributor to microplastic pollution might surprise you. What comes to mind for most is degrading water bottles, fishing nets, or plastic bags. But one of the leading contributors in the world is actually worn tires.

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that kick up into the air, coat the environment surrounding roads, enter soil, and rush out to the open ocean. It has been known to stunt fertility, growth and survival in marine life and can be very tricky, if not impossible, to remove from the water once it has entered.

An international team of four design students at Imperial College London recently created a practical method for capturing tire tread wear before it reaches the road, earning them the runner-up prize at the International James Dyson Awards.

The method comes in the form of a capsule that sits behind the tire, capturing tiny black rubber particles as they peel off the tire, and can be removed and disposed of properly. The particles can apparently be recycled as new tires, shoe insoles, and even pen ink.

The world reportedly discarded 3 billion car tires in 2019, according to Emission Analytics, and the pollution due to tire wear could be up to 1000 times more impactful to human health and the environment than petrol emissions.

This creative solution serves to inform the public about the issue and hopefully provide the first step to nipping it in the treads.

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Pete Flint

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Minimizing altogether?

And technically, tires are made from rubber, not plastic. Plastics don't biodegrade easily, whereas rubber (even synthetic rubber) does:

Biodegradation of Natural and Synthetic Rubbers.
Looking at this paper, they're describing ideal conditions for degrading rubber using microbes from soil. And ideally, we would degrade our waste in this way where possible, but as far as I could read on it, landfills don't often function under ideal circumstances where necessary bacteria and fungi can break it down at a fast enough rate. So the 3 billion tires disposed of annually that I reference in the article would still pose a massive problem if you can't break them down at the same rate they're used, which if you've ever looked in the yard of that guy down the street with a bunch of tires stacked up for years, you know that's not the case.
 
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Endymio

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So the 3 billion tires disposed of annually that I reference in the article would still pose a massive problem if you can't break them down at the same rate they're used, which if you've ever looked in the yard of that guy down the street with a bunch of tires stacked up for years, you know that's not the case.
But your article doesn't refer to disposal of the tire itself, but rather the powdery residue from the tire's tread. I don't believe that guy down the street from you has mounds of powder in his yard, does he? Organic decomposition is a function of the surface area/volume ratio, which for a microscopic powder is extremely high.
 
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Pete Flint

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But your article doesn't refer to disposal of the tire itself, but rather the powdery residue from the tire's tread. I don't believe that guy down the street from you has mounds of powder in his yard, does he? Organic decomposition is a function of the surface area/volume ratio, which for a microscopic powder is extremely high.
That's a fair point, but if you can recycle the stuff into new tires, you can reduce the amount of raw material you need to use, even to a small degree at first. Also, it doesn't always get degraded before it affects habitats. Insects, birds, aquatic animals, etc eat this stuff up and it has some serious downstream effects. Stopping it at the source seriously reduces those effects. There's not much to regulate that kind of pollution like there is for gas emissions.
 
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lipe123

Posts: 958   +544
I don't really see this dust catcher making a huge environmental difference, as others have pointed out rubber is not plastic.
Also if you drive on a dirt road or in snow - good luck catching any tire debris at all!

However! this device has some great applications in determining tire wear testing in a closed standard environment like a race track.
You can really get a good idea of how fast a tire wears down just by measuring the tire dust coming from it.
 

Endymio

Posts: 1,340   +1,214
It doesn't always get degraded before it affects habitats. Insects, birds, aquatic animals, etc eat this stuff up and it has some serious downstream effects.
I know it's alleged to have downstream effects, but I've seen no research to actually demonstrate that, and it seems rather unlikely in fact. It's wholly non-toxic, for one (chewing gum is actually made from synthetic rubber), and is chemically very similar to the natural rubber found normally in the environment. The particles are so small that they're not going to cause the digestive-blockage issues that larger plastic particles lead to. And, by providing a feedstock to (non-harmful) bacteria, they benefit the plankton and microscopic crustaceans which feed upon that bacteria, and so on forth up the entire food chain.

Edit: found this research paper which is relevant:

"In the present study, four freshwater benthic macroinvertebrates were exposed for 28 days to tread particles (TP; 10–586 μm) made from used car tires...No adverse effects were found on the survival, growth, and feeding rate ..."

The conclusions seem to bear out my earlier remarks innocuous.
 
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Pete Flint

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I know it's alleged to have downstream effects, but I've seen no research to actually demonstrate that, and it seems rather unlikely in fact. It's wholly non-toxic,
There's some really interesting stuff on this actually. It's not always about the toxicity of plastic, but just the fact that it's a blob of undigestible matter that can replace food (hindering growth), get lodged in animal guts, or increase infections. Some coral for example have been seen preferring plastics, which can coat in bacteria increase the spread of infections within an ecosystem, even if they are spit back out - there was an interesting paper in Science about this a couple years back. It's also been seen clogging the gills of some invertebrates like shrimp. When whole species see a dip in population like this, that's when you get the knock-on effects I mentioned.

And as a point of clarification, there is no current, blanket definition for "microplastics," but it's generally assumed that they are petroleum-based solids less than 5 mm across. As tires are generally made of 25-30% synthetic rubber, a plastic polymer, their "cigar-shaped" powdery residue is considered a microplastic and can have similar effects to microbeads or others. Sorry, I should have clarified this in the article.
 

Pete Flint

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Edit: found this research paper which is relevant:

"In the present study, four freshwater benthic macroinvertebrates were exposed for 28 days to tread particles (TP; 10–586 μm) made from used car tires...No adverse effects were found on the survival, growth, and feeding rate ..."

The conclusions seem to bear out my earlier remarks innocuous.
I understand that it won't affect all animals, but it does affect some, and those that feed on them.
 
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Endymio

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Sorry, I should have clarified this in the article.
Your reporting is fine; it is more an indication of the lack of rigor in what passes for "environmental science" these days. Lumping micron-grade rubber particles with 1000x-larger millimeter-sized polystyrene beads makes about as much sense as calling an Andean condor a domestic chicken.

It's not always about the toxicity of plastic, but just the fact that it's a blob of undigestible matter that can replace food (hindering growth), get lodged in animal guts...It's also been seen clogging the gills of some invertebrates like shrimp.
See the paper above. Also, see this paper:

"Microplastics in shrimp harmless to animal health and no effects on consumption quality..."

Just to clarify, there is research indicating negative effects for larger particles of actual plastic (though even those effects tend to be drastically overstated, and the positive benefits minimized or ignored). But microscopic rubber particles? None that I know of. You also have to remember that all animals regularly ingest undigestible matter. Indigestible particles are actually the basis of fiber supplements, in fact, recommended by many doctors.

Finally, I reiterate that rubber is biodegradable. It's not going to build up beyond a certain point in the environment. The best way to recycle it is almost certainly the natural way -- let bacteria break it down, as they do all other organic waste.
 
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quadibloc

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And as a point of clarification, there is no current, blanket definition for "microplastics," but it's generally assumed that they are petroleum-based solids less than 5 mm across. As tires are generally made of 25-30% synthetic rubber, a plastic polymer, their "cigar-shaped" powdery residue is considered a microplastic and can have similar effects to microbeads or others. Sorry, I should have clarified this in the article.
It's true that, as tires are made of rubber instead of plastic, it might come as a bit of a surprise that they're a source of microplastics, so indeed it's good to be reassured - but it shouldn't be too surprising that particles from tires might have consequences similar to those of particles of plastic. And, indeed, synthetic rubber and natural rubber are not the same thing at all.
 

defaultluser

Posts: 65   +57
Minimizing altogether?

And technically, tires are made from rubber, not plastic. Plastics don't biodegrade easily, whereas rubber (even synthetic rubber) does:

Biodegradation of Natural and Synthetic Rubbers.
You're assuming most Tire waste will end-up in a dump where it has access to air and bacteria, when a good-portion of it is ground-down while driving (it becomes road debris that will most -likely get flushed into the ocean.)

Once it is in the water system, it becomes a whole lot harder to biodegrade naturally.

There is a need for microplastic capture just like we already have carbon capture for power plants.
 
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Bp968

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The real problem thats never discussed is that its actually a problem of quantity. If deer breed to hundreds of times actual support capacity we intervene or they die of disease and starvation. Right now we are approaching 8 *billion* humans and the vast majority of that growth in the past 60 years. Some environmentalists will say its not a population thing, that the poorest people dont produce the waste that rich people do, as if those poor people are all stagnant and have no intention of moving up to join the modern world.

If we can't switch to 100% renewable (and we cant) for the power demands we have today, how do we do it when another billion people have AC? We don't (just look at india and china massively increasing coal and gas usage). And when those billion new purchasers all want iphones and ipads and teslas and big screen TVs to heat up their freshly ACed house, what then?

When a body has an out of control infection you don't usually treat it by increasing the bodies ability to handle more bacteria.
 

Endymio

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You're assuming most Tire waste will end-up in a dump where it has access to air and bacteria...Once it is in the water system, it becomes a whole lot harder to biodegrade naturally.
You have it exactly backwards. The proteobacteria and actinobacteria that biodegrade rubber are found naturally in water around the world. In such an environment, rubber particles decompose faster than in dry soil at an equivalent temperature.

When a body has an out of control infection you don't usually treat it by increasing the bodies ability to handle more bacteria.
People are not bacteria. Malthusians have been predicting the imminent demise of mankind through overpopulation for three centuries -- at one point, it would thought that more than a few hundred million people worldwide would lead to mass starvation. Today, we feed 8 billion people far better than every before in human history, and clothe and house them much better as well. With technology, we can easily handle a world population of double or triple today's levels ... and care for each one of those individuals better than we do today. Yes, resources are finite. But we're haven't even begun to scratch the earth's true potential.
 

Bp968

Posts: 202   +148
You have it exactly backwards. The proteobacteria and actinobacteria that biodegrade rubber are found naturally in water around the world. In such an environment, rubber particles decompose faster than in dry soil at an equivalent temperature.

People are not bacteria. Malthusians have been predicting the imminent demise of mankind through overpopulation for three centuries -- at one point, it would thought that more than a few hundred million people worldwide would lead to mass starvation. Today, we feed 8 billion people far better than every before in human history, and clothe and house them much better as well. With technology, we can easily handle a world population of double or triple today's levels ... and care for each one of those individuals better than we do today. Yes, resources are finite. But we're haven't even begun to scratch the earth's true potential.
Such optimism! Even the staunchest optimists ive read don't believe we "easily" care for 16-24 *billion* people. Not to mention that many people is entirely useless. We don't need the labor of all the people we currently have much less more of them, an issue that will become more and more clear the more technologically advanced we become.

We live vastly longer than we used too, and we require vastly less direct human labor. The question shouldn't be "can" we support 16+ billion people, but *why* should we support 16+ billion people? Just so everyone can have their own "mini-me"? We can and should produce less humans. A world with a few billion people in it will advance just as quickly as one with 16+ billion and it will be a vastly better place for them too live in as well.
 

Endymio

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A world with a few billion people in it will advance just as quickly as one with 16+ billion and it will be a vastly better place for them too live in as well.
Utterly, demonstrably untrue. A greater population means more scientists making discoveries, more engineers perfecting new technology, more authors and artists creating new works, more of everything in fact. Basic economics tells us it also means greater specialization and economies of scale, more efficiency, and a higher standard of living for all.

Do you think it's an accident that mankind's scientific and technological progress exploded at the same time its population did? Or do you believe it's coincidental that all isolated human populations remain primitive? Advanced, complex economies cannot exist without a large population. The larger the population, the better off everyone is.

What exactly do you believe we'll run out of in a future world with triple our population? Water? There's exactly as much water today as there was on earth a year ago, or a hundred or even a million years ago. Food? We're far better fed today than ever before. Energy? We consume only in infinitesimal fraction of the solar energy that strikes the earth, and nuclear power alone would fill our energy needs for millions of years. Metals? We haven't even used a millionth of a billionth of one percent of the metals in the earth's crust alone, not to mention what we might mine from space itself. Rare earths? The same argument applies. For any resource you mention, we have either a near-unlimited supply, or an alternative that will serve equally well. As for pollution, our air and water are much cleaner today than they were even 30 years ago ... and far cleaner than those in the primitive, low-population societies of certain 3rd-world nations.

No, we're nowhere near the limits of the earth. The sky isn't falling, Chicken Little.
 

Bp968

Posts: 202   +148
Utterly, demonstrably untrue. A greater population means more scientists making discoveries, more engineers perfecting new technology, more authors and artists creating new works, more of everything in fact. Basic economics tells us it also means greater specialization and economies of scale, more efficiency, and a higher standard of living for all.
Ahh yes, the ole "endless growth" idea. That because our recent past has a period of tremendous growth that it means our future will continue that way. There are plenty of signals that this isn't the case. A decrease in patents per capita is one of them. The first world has also seen a large growth in jobs requiring education while also seeing a large drop in manual labor jobs as those are replaced by automation or exported to low income countries. Initially they were replaced by "service" jobs but that economic engine started running out of steam years ago and was accelerated due to covid. In the 90s there was a strong push to educate everyone to college level but we didn't see near the growth in college level jobs to accompany the newly degreed. To put it in simple terms, the largest richest companies in the 21st century require only a handful of human employees while the largest richest companies of the 20th century employed legions of humans. The more efficient we are and the more of us there are the less valuable each hour of human labor becomes. This doesn't work very well with our current global economic system. This issue alone is going to cause more and more global unrest as the century continues.

Do you think it's an accident that mankind's scientific and technological progress exploded at the same time its population did? Or do you believe it's coincidental that all isolated human populations remain primitive? Advanced, complex economies cannot exist without a large population. The larger the population, the better off everyone is.
This is backwards. Unless your implying that if only humanity had managed to have more babies or not die as often 2000 years ago we would be much more advanced by now? No, our population exploded when we discovered how to convert fossil fuels into energy so we could produce food for everyone with only a handful of farmers, freeing up the rest of us to do other things. And the other major factor was modern medicine. We vastly reduced infant mortality and significantly increased the percentage of us making it to our 70s and 80s (or more importantly, the number of us making it out of childhood).

Also, thanks to technology, geography doesn't isolate like it used too. The modern world doesn't require ultra dense cities like it did in the 19th and 20th century.

What exactly do you believe we'll run out of in a future world with triple our population? Water? There's exactly as much water today as there was on earth a year ago, or a hundred or even a million years ago. Food? We're far better fed today than ever before. Energy? We consume only in infinitesimal fraction of the solar energy that strikes the earth, and nuclear power alone would fill our energy needs for millions of years. Metals? We haven't even used a millionth of a billionth of one percent of the metals in the earth's crust alone, not to mention what we might mine from space itself. Rare earths? The same argument applies. For any resource you mention, we have either a near-unlimited supply, or an alternative that will serve equally well. As for pollution, our air and water are much cleaner today than they were even 30 years ago ... and far cleaner than those in the primitive, low-population societies of certain 3rd-world nations.
Solar: we often already produce more than we can use in some areas because its not constant supply so we install gas plants to offset solar during the night. Gravity storage requires far too much geographic space to be realistic and battery backup will require collassal project scales with its own pollution issues.

Nuclear: this is a holy grail if we weren't so stupid as a species. All the waste produced by US nuclear power since its inception can fit in a single football field 9 meters high. And thats after producing near 30% of the USAs power for the past what, 50 years? Yet we are still using technology dating back from the 60s and we have barely pushed the needle foward on what should already be our primary national power source. But it scares the sheep and they bleat loudly.

Pollution: your right. *our* air and water are cleaner (if you live in the USA). We and the rest of the 1st world have exported our pollution producing factories, mining and refining to 3rd world nations. Unfortunately we still need all of those things, and more of them the more of us there are.

More people has put a *huge* strain on our wild places globally. I personally can see a difference in many national parks, beaches and reefs just between the 90s and now. Red River Gorge national forest near me has gone from a locals climbing destination and hangout to a international destination, and now the place looks like a parking lot and amusement park most weekends. And that's in just 20 years. There have been a number of scientific papers on the subject, and it stems from the swiftly growing population of global middle class and the low cost of international travel.

These problems will all continue to accelerate even if population growth stopped tomorrow, simply as a side effect of the current world populations increasing wealth and access to "middle class" activities.

Clearly malthusian level population genocide isn't the answer, but neither is then idea that somehow we can become many tens or hundreds of times more efficient than we are now while also doubling or tripling our numbers. You also seem to be casually glossing over the tremendous negative effects our massive population growth have already created.

You seem to repeatedly go with the idea that if some is good, more must be better, ad infinitum. I don't believe the evidence demands that technological advancement is dependent on massive population growth

Humanity will continue to grow, but we can't do it here. If we want to continue growing at a billion every 10-15 years we are going to need to focus on getting us off this planet.
 

imdarkbreeze

Posts: 63   +60
Looking at this paper, they're describing ideal conditions for degrading rubber using microbes from soil. And ideally, we would degrade our waste in this way where possible, but as far as I could read on it, landfills don't often function under ideal circumstances where necessary bacteria and fungi can break it down at a fast enough rate. So the 3 billion tires disposed of annually that I reference in the article would still pose a massive problem if you can't break them down at the same rate they're used, which if you've ever looked in the yard of that guy down the street with a bunch of tires stacked up for years, you know that's not the case.
But the "story" was about tire particulate pollution, not disposed of, worn out tires in landfills. Capsules behind the tires have literally nothing at all to do with landfills, so the comments about the tires filling up landfills has literally nothing to do with the topic it was supposed to be about.

And inasmuch as I'm a "part time tree hugger" being as I don't actually hug trees and am a consumer that would simply like to do better and be more conscientious about my own footprint, I have to agree with what others have said about rubber being an entirely different matter than plastics. Rubber is known to degrade to pretty much nothing, especially since the whole POINT of the project was related to rubber "dust", not whole tires, whereas plastics are pretty much forever.

Entirely different conversations.
 

Bp968

Posts: 202   +148
But the "story" was about tire particulate pollution, not disposed of, worn out tires in landfills. Capsules behind the tires have literally nothing at all to do with landfills, so the comments about the tires filling up landfills has literally nothing to do with the topic it was supposed to be about.

And inasmuch as I'm a "part time tree hugger" being as I don't actually hug trees and am a consumer that would simply like to do better and be more conscientious about my own footprint, I have to agree with what others have said about rubber being an entirely different matter than plastics. Rubber is known to degrade to pretty much nothing, especially since the whole POINT of the project was related to rubber "dust", not whole tires, whereas plastics are pretty much forever.

Entirely different conversations.
Well, plastics do eventually degrade to essentially nothing, just not on timescales that are relevant to most humans.

Thats actually the kind of sad double edge of plastics. Its that the *material* will last "forever", just not necessarily the *product* it was made with.. :(
 

Endymio

Posts: 1,340   +1,214
No, our population exploded when we discovered how to convert fossil fuels into energy
You missed my point. Yes, you are correct in the genesis of the population boom. But that in turn led to our scientific and technological boom. Throughout nearly all human history, a person led the same lifestyle as did their parents and grandparents. By the 19th century, lifestyles were transforming utterly within two generations. Now, they're doing so in less than one. That's because we have a literal army of scientists and engineers all working to that end.

That army is only possible due to our enormous population. Today, there are many branches of physics and mathematics with only four or five specialists in the entire world working in them. In a world with one tenth our population, there would be none. In a world with ten times the population, there will be ten times as many, progressing ten times faster.

(solar/nuclear comments snipped)
All true and very reasonable. However, I will point out that as impractical a pipe dream as solar is today, improving battery technology as well as demand-based industrial plants will eventually change that. Place a fully-automated solar-powered aluminum smelter in the middle of the Mojave. When the sun goes down, it shuts off till morning.

As for nuclear, I believe in a decade or two when we announce a true cure for cancer, much of the public's irrational, unwarranted fear of nuclear power will wither away.

We're getting far afield the original topic, so I won't address your other points here.