Nanoplastics in the environment: the big impact of the very small

Project: University of Helsinki Three-Year Research Project

Project Details

Description (abstract)

Environmental problems caused by plastics are clearly shown by the presence of several large garbage patches in the oceans around the world mainly made of small plastic debris. These kinds of debris are mainly in the micro- and nano-size range. Nanoplastics (NPs) are very small particles (less than 1000nm of diameter) and can be directly produced in the aquatic environment through degradation of larger plastic debris or can be entered into surface water by incorrect disposal. Nowadays little is known about these NPs in the environment and only recently the occurrence of nanoplastic in oceans has been demonstrated. The ambition of this project is to assess the impact of NPs on the environment. The project foresees two stages. In the first stage, will be investigated the reactivity of NPs at the surface of oceans, with particular attention to the interactions between NPs and the atmosphere. The reactivity of NPs versus chemical species in both atmosphere and in water will be evaluated through laboratory experiments. The NPs will be exposed to light and/or gas phase oxidant, as well as to chemical compounds present in marine water (e.i. organic compounds and metal ions). In the second part of the project new selective methods will be developed and implemented in order to detect and quantify nano-size plastic particles in the aquatic environment. A procedure for analysing NPs in environmental samples is not yet defined leading to a lack of data on the impact of NPs on the environment. Different methods and instruments, including filtration, ES (electrospray), SMPS (scanning mobility particle sizer), DMA (differential mobility analyser) and MS will be tested and combine in order to define the best procedure to detect, quantify and characterize particles in environmental samples. This project will provide essential data to evaluate the impact of NPs pollution on the ecosystem and it will lay the bases for a deeply understanding on NPs fate in the environment.

Layman's description

Plastic pollution is nowadays ubiquitous and reaches even the most remote areas of the Earth. Plastic debris undergoes a slow process of erosion in the environment, which decreases the size of plastic debris down to nanoplastics.
Recently, small plastic debris has been found everywhere: from the Alps, to Antarctica, and even in the air we breathe. Nanoplastics are very small and they are invisible to the naked eye. This small plastic debris could have a significant impact on the environment due to the small size and increased reactivity. However, up to now the transformation and impact of nanoplastics on the environment is still unclear. The aim of this project is to understand the potential impact of nanoplastic pollution on the environment; the goal will be reached through detailed studies on nanoplastics reactivity towards environmental agents (such as sunlight and natural oxidants). Moreover, we will develop a method to analyse nanoplastics in the environment to assess their presence and number. This project will allow clarifying the potential impact of nanoplastic pollution on our Earth.
Effective start/end date01/01/201931/12/2021

Fields of Science

  • 116 Chemical sciences
  • Nanoplastics
  • Kinetic reactivity
  • environmental impact
  • dissolved organic carbon (DOC)
  • 1172 Environmental sciences
  • plastic pollution
  • environmental fate
  • atmosphere
  • surface waters