This briefing by Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) outlines global issues relating to *microplastic pollution and its prevention.
The majority of microplastics are unintentionally lost to the environment
The largest proportion result from the washing of synthetic textiles and from the abrasion of road markings and tyres from driving.
More than half of microplastic losses will remain on land and in soils
Removal at wastewater treatment works has proven to be highly effective, however, due to the large volumes of wastewater that are processed, millions of microplastics are still being released back into the freshwater environment each day. The large quantities that are retained at the treatment works may then be transferred back into the environment via the spreading of sewage sludge on land for agriculture.
Microplastics are likely to have environmental impacts but data is sparse
Studies in the marine environment have shown microplastics can be ingested by marine animals leading to physical harm and reproductive or toxic effects. The adverse environmental effects of the polymers and additives which make up the microplastics following dietary uptake are not fully known.
A global issue
Initiatives to tackle plastic and microplastic pollution fall far short of what is needed. An international protocol or regulatory framework to guide co-operation between governments, plastics manufacturers, the waste management and water industries, consumers and companies using plastics in their products is necessary to solve issues around design, manufacturing, use, reuse and disposal of plastics.
Prevention is the best, and most likely the cheapest, solution to reduce microplastic pollution
Urgent measures are needed to address microplastic pollution at source, as once released into the environment there are few, if any, practicable means by which these pollutants can be removed.
A new plastics’ strategy is needed – designing for reuse
Outside of the European Union the UK will need to address plastics with its own strategy. Plastics can easily form part of a circular economy with reuse or recycling if they are designed appropriately and are properly recovered and managed when they reach the end of their life. Methods should include improved product design and substitution, extended producer responsibility and deposit return schemes.
- Governments to set high standards and improve recovery and recycling of plastics to minimise the quantity of secondary microplastics that reach the environment.
- Research is needed into the fate and transport mechanisms of microplastics within the environment and into which polymers are the most damaging and under what conditions, so that these can be most effectively addressed.
- Governments to provide incentives (financial or otherwise) for the use of alternatives that are shown to be less damaging and tackle the issue of single-use packaging items like plastic film which can be neither reused nor recycled.
- Industry to develop potentially commercially viable plastics and plastic alternatives that are less damaging to the environment, particularly for tyres, road markings and synthetic fabrics.
- Local authorities to review road markings and highway drainage to prevent microplastics entering the freshwater environment.
- Regulators to enforce existing restrictions on the use of hazardous additives and polymer ingredients under the EU REACH regulations, encourage producers to use more benign alternatives where possible, and in the longer term take a more sector-based approach to the assessment and regulation of chemicals related to plastics.
- Governments to promote good practice in plastic use and disposal and increase public awareness of plastic use (wider than personal care items e.g. littering, washing synthetic clothing, windblown litter), reuse and recycling capabilities.
- Developed countries to target development assistance on waste management to alleviate what in many parts of the world is an immense problem.
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The Thames Estuary Partnership, along with Selfridges, the Zoological Society of London and a group of environmental charities, have launched the #One Less campaign which aims to make London free of single-use plastic water bottles.
*Microplastics are particles that are smaller than 5mm and are formed by the fragmentation of larger plastic items or are intentionally or unintentionally released in the form of manufactured beads, granules, fibres and fragments. Once in the environment they are very difficult to remove and have the potential to accumulate in soil, freshwater and marine environments causing a range of known and unknown impacts.