Vegetable Ally Could Turn The Tide In War Against Microplastics

Recent university research has identified an unlikely tool for battling one of source water’s most challenging nemeses. 

“According to new research from scientists at Tarleton State University in Texas, okra — you know, the green, finger-shaped pod that is often added to delicious dishes like gumbo and soup — is a valuable weapon in the fight to get microplastics out of our drinking water,” The Optimist Daily reported.

Microplastics are debris that flood source water from a variety of industrial products, ultimately making their way into drinking water and potentially harming consumer health. They have recently prompted unprecedented regulatory action in California and are becoming a growing threat to wastewater as well. But their microscopic and widespread nature make them technically challenging and expensive to monitor, as well as to combat.

For the most part, drinking water treatment facilities leverage flocculants to attract microplastics along with other suspended solids and then remove them from influent. But if okra really proves to be a solution to microplastic pollution, it could prove to be a cheaper and safer alternative.

“Through their investigation … the team found that when polysaccharides from okra were combined with those from fenugreek, the resulting compound was very effective at removing microplastics from seawater,” per Optimist Daily. “The researchers discovered that when the okra polysaccharides were paired with those from tamarind, the same positive effects were seen in freshwater.”

While the research is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and no treatment product based on it has been licensed for use yet, the team behind it — led by Dr. Rajani Srinivasan — is working on a way to scale up the solution for use at drinking water treatment plants across the country.

“The plant-based combinations that Srinivasan’s team have developed are ready-made for water treatment plants,” according to Texas Monthly. “Srinivasan says her compounds are interchangeable with chemical flocculants already in use at many facilities.” 

The recipe calls for one gram of the okra polysaccharide combination per liter of water, so if it were to catch on as drinking water operations continue to combat the widespread prevalence of microplastics, the solution may drive a boom in okra farming as well.

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