Texas Researchers Use Okra to Remove Microplastics from Wastewater

The South’s favorite veggie is great for more than just thickening gumbo and stews!

Okra Slices and Whole Okra
Photo: Gett images / MirageC

Most Southerners think of okra as a vegetable for deep-frying, throwing into a pot of gumbo, or stewing with tomatoes. But thanks to a new study from researchers at Tarleton State University in Fort Worth, Texas, the small-but-mighty pods are now being seen in an entirely new light. Researchers discovered that food-grade plant extracts from okra have the power to remove microplastics from wastewater.

Microplastics are typically removed from water using two processes. The few that float are skimmed off the top, but the majority of microplastics are removed by adding flocculants, sticky chemicals that attract microplastics, to the water and waiting for them to form large clumps that sink to the bottom and can then be removed.

Associate Professor Rajani Srinivasan, who served as lead investigator for the project, said that while microplastics themselves may not be hazardous to ingest, the problem comes when substances bind to them that could potentially be toxic or harmful to the body. Additionally, some of the substances used as flocculants can become toxic under certain conditions.

"It doesn't help if we try to clean up water but add potentially toxic substances to remove the pollutants," Srinivasan said in a release.

For a cleaner solution, Srinivasan and her team began searching for non-toxic flocculant alternatives. They found success with polysaccharide extracts from plants like fenugreek, cactus, aloe vera, tamarind, and the oft-slimy okra pod. It turns out that the same polysaccharides that cause okra to leave a sticky substance on your fingers when cutting and turn slimy when added to heat can also make great flocculants for cleaning water.

WATCH: Would You Start Your Morning With a Glass of Okra Water?

The study found that polysaccharides from okra and fenugreek were best for removing microplastics from ocean water, while a combo of okra and tamarind worked best for freshwater. More importantly, plant-based flocculants can be easily implemented in existing water treatment facilities.

"The whole treatment method with the nontoxic materials uses the same infrastructure," Srinivasan said. "We don't have to build something new to incorporate these materials for water treatment purposes."

Up next, the team will take a crack at scaling their findings for commercial and industrial use. Three cheers for everyone's favorite superfood and the star of any self-respecting meat-and-three!

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