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Researchers develop sponge that could soak up as much as 90% of microplastic from our water: 'We don't have to wait…'

"We have to stop it getting there in the first place."

“We have to stop it getting there in the first place."

Photo Credit: iStock

Sponges already sop up a lot of gunk generated by our existence. Now, researchers in China have made a synthetic sponge that they claim can absorb microplastics in our tap water and the sea

During testing, the experts were able to clear up to 90% of microplastics from the liquids they pushed through their sponges. Results varied based on the type of liquid and other variables, including acidity and saltiness, according to a report on the findings by Smithsonian Magazine. 

The filtered liquids included tap water, seawater, and takeout soup. (Microplastics are just about everywhere.) 

Tackling plastic pollution on a micro scale is part of addressing a huge problem. About 320 million tons of plastic waste has been tossed each year for decades, per a ScienceDirect article on the research, which included experts from several institutions. The study was supported by a fund for the Qingdao Science and Technology Program of Public Wellbeing.

Those plastics leach into our environment and ultimately our very blood. Microplastics were found in the veins of 77% of people tested in a study reported on by Henry Ford Health. 

Experts at the National Library of Medicine note that the tiny plastic pieces can impact "digestive, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems," among other lamentable outcomes. 

The sponges developed are made of starch and gelatin and look like marshmallows. They are also biodegradable, according to the Smithsonian. 

"The starch-gelatin sponge is … featured with low-cost, sustainable production and high degradability," the researchers wrote in the ScienceDirect report. 

The experts envision the sponges at work in a variety of settings. Guoqing Wang, co-author of the research report, told Smithsonian that if they are produced at an "industrial" scale, the sponges could filter water in waste treatment plants or in the food production industry. 

Christian Adlhart, a chemist at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland, works on similar sponge tech. He told the magazine that the porous creations could even be put in washing machines to capture microplastics (yes, they are even in our clothes). 

"I think it would absorb a large fraction of the fibers," he said in the report.

Adlhart cited a couple of remaining challenges. In his opinion, it's important to ensure that using starch and gelatin doesn't compete with its use in the food industry. Smithsonian reports that toxic formaldehyde was also used to make the sponges. 

For the researchers' part, Wang told the magazine that the team is working on a sponge recipe that includes only planet-friendly materials. 

However, Anett Georgi, a chemist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Germany, told Smithsonian magazine that we can still act immediately to clean our waters of toxins while researchers continue to develop futuristic solutions like microplastic-absorbing sponges.

"We don't have to wait for crazy material," Georgi told the outlet, adding that a good place to start would be wastewater treatment plants that are not employing existing technology like sand filters or activated carbon to remove plastic.

But a large part of the solution, according to Alice Horton from the United Kingdom's National Oceanography Center, is to eliminate the micro-pollution's creation at the onset. 

"We have to stop it getting there in the first place," she told Smithsonian.

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