The negative impact of plastics on the marine environment are relatively well understood, and both Stockholm and Basel Conventions aim to limit its impact, however, little attention is paid to their presence in air. Evidence from the sparse literature show that microplastics abound in air, from densely populated urban environments to remote environments such as the Arctic and fibrous microplastics predominate. Their origin is unknown.
Indoor exposure to airborne microplastics through inhalation is a potentially significant health risk, increasing the risk of COPD. In one study, plant and plastic fibres were identified in 97% of malignant lung specimens. Clothing accounts for 75% of all textiles bought in the UK and is known to release significant quantities of microplastics into the watercourse when washing. We hypothesise that clothing is also releasing significant quantities into the air during drying and use. An outline of our science and engagement approach is set out below. Engagement Design: The project design allows different levels of engagement, with high engagement citizens undertaking the pilot’s developmental and stress-testing Phase 1, which is intended to facilitate interaction in Phase 2 with those citizens preferring a low-engagement approach. This approach of using highly engaged citizens to create opportunities for others with low-engagement preferences is designed to allow for engagement with a broader cross-section of society and maximise sample collection. The project will evolve across two phases. Phase 1 (Pilot): The purpose of this phase is three-fold. First, collect initial microplastic samples from a range of different domestic settings; second, to test the accessibility and quality of various clip-on microscopes, and to develop the python-based automated image analysis platforms for the analysis of samples; and third, to obtain feedback from citizens on these points with a view to improving the method for a wider roll-out. Citizens will be recruited via community partner networks. Samples will also be returned to UWE for further analysis by Raman spectroscopy, a spectroscopic technique typically used to provide a molecular structural fingerprint by which molecules can be identified, to determine microplastic composition. Phase 2 (Bristol and Bradford roll-out): This phase will see the roll-out of the piloted and refined sampling, analysis and reporting approaches to the Bristol and Bradford areas. Citizens will collect data using the passive sampling and analysis approaches developed in Phase 1 and analysis will be undertaken using a bespoke image processing tool and analysed further by Raman spectroscopy. In addition, citizens will interact with industry to understand their perceptions of plastic use, clothing treatment and current behaviour patterns. These phases will be delivered across three work packages, summarised here and set out in more detail within the case for support. WP1: This work package will focus on the recruitment of citizens from a range of community groups, ensuring that participation is a positive, enjoyable and informative experience and establishing a two-way dialogue between project members and participants. WP2: Focuses on the development and implementation of the sampling and analysis approach. This work package will, with the aid of citizens, test the sampling procedures, develop an online platform for citizens to analyse their samples and allow the Raman sample preparation and analysis to be refined. The outcome from this work package will be an understanding of both particle count, shape and microplastic composition. WP3: Brings together citizens and the clothing industry, a key stakeholder in the field of airborne microplastics, through a two-way dialogue, to co-develop policy recommendations leveraging the full potential of citizen science to drive bottom-up change.