Where does all the nano waste go

From your UV light-absorbing sunscreen up to the new finish for your car - hundreds of commercial products contain nanomaterials. But what happens when substances such as nano-silver land as ash or dust in landfills?

In the course of the project NanoMia, ITA researchers André Gazsó and Daniela Fuchs have taken a closer look at how nanomaterials are handled within waste management systems. Together with the Institute of Waste Management (BOKU), six consumer goods were traced when entering the waste disposal chain. The researchers also updated the Austrian inventory of all consumer products containing nanomaterials. The result: How nanomaterials behave in landfills or recycling processes, and how and if nanoparticles affect air and soil, needs to be investigated further. 

Is there "nano" in it?

Where and in what quantities nanomaterials actually pop up in products – and subsequently also in the waste or the recycling process – is often hard to identify. EU-wide labeling requirement exist only for cosmetics and biocides. "Our scenarios refer to products of which we knew that they contain nanomaterials because of the labeling or the manufacturer's instructions. These include nano titanium dioxide in sunscreens or nano silver in wall colors", says Fuchs.

New regulations necessary

The exchange between natural scientists and representatives of several ministries was an important part of the project: regulations and much needed adjustments were discussed in a workshop. The researchers stress, for example, that existing threshold values are not taking into consideration the small mass of nanoparticles: "Nanoparticles are much smaller in mass, therefore it is possible that larger quantities of the same substance would pass through the system," says Fuchs. This can sometimes be problematic because due to their size nanoparticles react different: I.e., certain bacteria interact mainly with nano silver particles.

Generalisations not useful

"At the ITA, we have been researching the use of nanomaterials in Austria for a decade now. We are in constant communication with the ministries", says project manager André Gazsó. "The core of our work is to assess potential risks. Currently, however, there is no reason to assume that nanoparticles cause greater damage than any other potentially hazardous materials" Gazsó is calling for an improved monitoring process: "We need to develop ways to determine nanomaterials in waste streams more accurately". Currently, nanomaterials find their way into the environment mainly as part of rubble or sludge.

The main result of this one-year project, which was carried out as part of nano-EHS program of the Austrian Ministry of the Environment, is the creation of scenarios, taking into account the circumstances of the current Austrian waste management systems. The latest findings come in the form of four short reports. Read and download them here:

Nano-Trust Dossiers (German and English)

[Translate to English:] Photo: „Klaerwerk Buelk nahe Kiel“ Louis-F. Stahl/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Nanomaterials can enter waste streams in a number of ways. I.e., the majority of sunscreens ends up not in lake or seawater, but in drains as part of shower water. In sewage treatment plants nanomaterials are only treated as waste when they have undergone treatment as part of solid waste and been excreted as sewage sludge.(Photo: Louis-F. Stahl / WikiCommons. CC BY-SA 3.0)