Starting as a research project and evolving into a nonprofit research organization, Wasser 3.0 developed a technology that uses a centrifuge and a clumping agent to pull microplastics from the water and recycle the collected material.
To understand this solution, we have to first understand the problem. Over the past five decades, plastic has become one of the most ubiquitous materials on the planet. Its production commonly relies on petroleum (although there are an increasing number of bio-based options). Some plastic can be recycled, but in the end, less than 10% globally actually is. Instead, it ends up on beaches, at the bottom of the ocean, in landfills and everywhere in between.
The result is a massive plastic pollution problem. We’re not just talking about fishing net waste and floating single-use water bottles, although that all needs to be addressed. The unseen issue is in the microplastics created as plastic begins to break down. Microplastics are literally everywhere. They’ve been found in frozen ice on mountaintops, in baby food, soil, the human body, sandy beaches and animals.
Scientifically, microplastics are described as those measuring less than five millimeter in length. These are tiny pieces of plastic that are released from your synthetic clothing in the wash, degrading packaging and consumer products. While they are often the result of decomposition, many everyday products include microbeads, such as toothpaste and cosmetics. Understanding the dangers to the environment and human health, the U.S. and many other countries have banned the use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics.
Even with an understanding of the problem and actions to minimize pollution from the source, our waterways are filled with microplastics, which are then ingested by marine animals, spread during irrigation and kept circulating throughout our water supply. Most municipal treatment plants use filters that catch some microplastics during preliminary filtration, yet still release a lot of particles.
Now we return to the work at Wasser 3.0. The process can be used in any kind of water, from freshwater and seawater to industrial and wastewater.
To visualize the process, imagine a large container of water. You can’t see the microplastics inside, but the addition of a compound known as Wasser 3.0 PE-X causes those microplastic particles to clump together as the water spins.
The compound is a non-toxic, silicone-based gel that attaches to the microplastic surfaces and adheres them together in the whirlpool. Clumps of microplastics, unseen individually, turn into ping-pong size balls of material within minutes. The clumps of microplastics are then skimmed from the surface.
While the primary goal is to remove the microplastics, leaving clean water behind, all the retrieved materials are then recycled into new products rather than being deposited back into the waste stream.
Wasser 3.0 technology is already in use at a municipal wastewater treatment plant in Landau-Mörlheim, Germany, and at a paper-processing factory. The company wants to expand the technology to sewage treatment plants and industrial manufacturing plants worldwide.
“During a 12-month trial at the Landau site, around 600 pounds of microplastics were removed,” according to Dr. Katrin Schuhen, founder and CEO of Wasser 3.0. She says the technology is affordable and scalable because of the basic nature of the process.
There are other methods of microplastic removal in use. After all, the dangers of microplastics is not a new topic. Neither is the idea of filtering the particles out of water. It’s commonly implemented at water treatment plants, but the effectiveness varies widely. A 2021 report evaluating 10 years of data and published by Science Direct states, “This review showed highly variable efficiency of the water treatment technologies with primary treatment of wastewater treatment plants reported to remove 16.5 to 98.4% microplastics.”
In addition to the inconsistent results, filtration results in sludge, which is a waste product that isn’t reliably recycled. The microplastics can also clog up the filtration systems.
Wasser 3.0 is squarely focused on contributing towards reaching the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Outlined in 2015, the SDGs are a 15-year plan to aggressively obtain certain human and environmental goals by 2030. The SDGs are a commitment to end poverty, improve education, address water shortages, eliminate inequalities and focus on the climate, as some of the 17 designated targets.
Images via Wasser 3.0 and Pexels