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Opening plastic packaging produces microplastics

Tearing and cutting lead to measurable debris from various forms of plastic

by Celia Henry Arnaud
March 21, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 11


Photo of a plastic bag being cut open with scissors.
Credit: Shutterstock
Cutting plastic bags generates microplastics.

Tiny pieces of plastic known as microplastics are ubiquitous. These microplastics are additives in products such as cosmetics, or they can be formed from the degradation of larger pieces of plastic in the environment. A new study finds that the act of opening plastic packaging may be yet another source (Sci. Rep. 2020, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-61146-4). Cheng Fang of the University of Newcastle in Australia and coworkers tested whether microplastics are formed as a result of opening plastic packaging. The researchers used their hands, scissors, and knives to tear or cut plastic shopping bags, packaging film, plastic bottles, gloves, and packaging foam. They captured microplastic particles released during the process on a quartz crystal microbalance (QCM), which they used to measure the change in mass caused by those particles’ formation. They used Raman and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to determine the particles’ chemical composition. All the plastic packages and all three methods for opening produced 0.46–250 microplastics per centimeter of cut or torn plastic, with the knife producing more than scissors or hands. The QCM captures only a fraction of the microplastics, the researchers say, so they think the results reported in the study are probably an underestimate. The findings suggest that everyday activities such as opening plastic packages can be a source of microplastics exposure.


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