Small(er) particles, big(ger) problems? Fate, transport and implications of nanoplastic in the environment

, Mitrano Denise.

Numerous studies have made the ubiquitous presence of plastic in the environment undeniable, and thus it no longer comes as a surprise when scientists monitor the accumulation of microplastic litter and microplastic fragments in both urban and remote sites. Ultimately, the different physical and chemical characteristics of the different size classes of plastic pollution (macroplastic, microplastic and nanoplastic) will result in divergent fate and hazards. Quantitative data are still limited due to analytical difficulties to detect nanoplastics in complex matrices, and thus mechanistic studies to understand the fate, transport and biological interactions of these materials are limited. While progress is still ongoing to develop protocols to measure particulate plastic in field studies, researchers who study these processes in bench top or pilot scale studies can take advantage of an entirely different approach. In the last years, we have synthesized a variety of particulate plastics with an embedded inorganic fingerprint which can be used as a proxy to detect plastic by common analytical techniques for metals analysis. In practice, this affords for quicker and more accurate sampling and subsequently allows us to investigate the basic processes and pathways which control particulate plastic fate and impacts. To highlight the utility of this approach, we have used these materials in a number of different test systems including, 1) mass balance and flux of plastic through pilot-scale wastewater and drinking water treatment plants, 2) application of sewage sludge in agriculture and nanoplastic mobility through porous media and 3) the interaction and uptake of nanoplastics with plants and organism. As human and environmental nanoscientists, we should try to place nanoplastic in the context of global plastic pollution by assessing its source and risk, but also by assessing commonalities nanoplastics may share with other nano-sized objects in environmental systems, such as engineered nanomaterials and natural colloids.

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