Imperial College London is to undertake a study into the respiratory health of manual sorters at “plastic-specific material recycling facilities”.
The project, backed by funding from insurance giant AXA, will “investigate the health impact of occupational exposure to airborne microplastics”.
According to Imperial, this can often occur from different activities along the recycling chain at plastic facilities where manual labour is often still required.
The project will be carried out by Dr Joseph Levermore, a research associate in the environmental research group at Imperial, and will begin later this year. It is one of 10 projects awarded a share of the £1.5 million AXA fund.
Dr Livermore will analyse collected air and human biological samples to identify “biomarkers for airborne micro-and nano-plastic exposure and assess the health impacts of such exposure”.
He explained: “With the shift to a more circular economy, the importance of those employed in this sector is vital and, given the nature of the work, employee’s chemical exposure can be extremely high when compared to the general public.
“Protecting employee’s health is of extreme importance and the research outcomes from this project hope to further our understanding of the potential impacts in relation to chemical exposure within these occupational settings.”
The study will aim to contribute to the development of appropriate practices and legislation to reduce health impacts in this “expanding waste-management sector on a national and international scale”.
It will allow the plastics recycling industry to “better understand chemical exposures that occur on their sites”.
This is hoped to help employees “visualise the invisible” pollutants in their workplace and could be used as a “resource to emphasize the need for behavioural change, such as more stringent use of personal protective equipment”.
Dr Livermore explained that plastic consumption is expected to rise to 5590 tons by 2050, “increasing plastic waste and public exposure to airborne microplastics”.
He explained that the health consequences of airborne microplastic exposure are currently unknown, but said individuals working in plastic-specific Material Recycling Facilities (pMRFs) are at “high risk”.
He said: “Waste separation in pMRFs in the United Kingdom is not yet fully automated, requiring manual labour. Material recycling facilities are environments where multi-domain exposures occur, from bioaerosols to volatile organic compounds to ambient particulate matter. PMRFs workers are formally required to wear masks; however, only a few comply due to a lack of risk awareness and their physically strenuous work making mask-wearing inconvenient”.
Source: Lets Recycle, Author Joshua Doherty