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Airdate: Mar 16, 2017
Scientist: Tim Long

Microplastics - Beneficial Uses

Microplastics - Beneficial Uses
What happens to the microplastics in your toothpaste when they get washed down the drain?

Microplastics Beneficial Uses

The Washington Post has stated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world's oceans. There's concern in particular about microplastics - tiny bits of plastic that could be ingested by fish and ultimately, people. But microplastics are also being manufactured intentionally because of their unique properties. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

Long: Microplastics really come from two sources. They come from the ocean, operating on a piece of plastic litter that's found its way there to the beach side, but also, many companies around the world are developing microplastics for what is perceived to be beneficial reasons, too.

Tim Long is director of the Macromolecules Research Institute at Virginia Tech.

A very common example might be toothpaste. It might be a scrub or a body wash that has that kind of exfoliating characteristic that we all enjoy. But we need to remember that these microplastics are then washed down the drain. And even though they're designed, are they necessarily designed to find their way to the ocean and not have a consequence?
We're looking at in our laboratory, the influence of the nano dimension or the micro dimension in a desirable way. Can we use that more efficiently to deliver a drug more systematically and maybe in a localized way to the human body? We're trying to cure disease based on dimension and shape of a plastic particle. It's an absolutely important area of nano medicine and nano scale science, that will continue, because the potential outcomes and impact are very profound for our human health.

So we shouldn't be afraid of the micron dimension in the plastic world. We just need to make sure we apply it carefully and very conscientiously to the packaging world, and recognizing that what else can we do in the microplastics of the ocean to make a difference, and that's changing.

Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by the Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology and the National Science Foundation.