How to Fix Microplastics in our Water Supply
Plastic waste enters the oceans in excess of 9 million tonnes per year. Decomposition of microplastics can take hundreds or even thousands of years, just like other types of plastic. The article discusses how microplastics harm different water bodies and possible solutions to solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.
So What Exactly are Microplastics?
The term microplastic refers to small plastic particles that are smaller than five millimetres (0.2 inches). There are two types of them: primary and secondary. There are two types of microplastics: primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are those that are shed from commercial products, such as cosmetics, clothing, and textiles, as well as fishing nets. Microplastic particles caused by the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles, are called secondary microplastics. It is possible to cause this breakdown by exposure to environmental factors, such as the sun’s radiation and ocean waves. The majority of microplastics are secondary microplastics.
Throughout the environment, microplastics can be found in air, soil, and water. High levels of these toxic particles have been found in drinking water, oceans, freshwater, and water in the polar regions.
Water contamination by microplastics
It has been found that microplastics are present both in tap and bottled water. In 2017, 83% of 159 samples collected from 14 countries contained plastic particles, according to a study. It’s no surprise that the US scored the highest contamination rate at 94%, while European nations, including the UK, Germany, and France scored the lowest at 72%.
This finding might appear to pose an alarming threat to human health at first glance. According to the World Health Organization (WTO) there is no evidence so far to support the claim that microplastics in drinking water are harmful.
Humans cannot absorb microplastics larger than 150 micrometers, which pass through the gut without being digested, according to the European Food Safety Authority. It is also expected that smaller particles will not be absorbed. Drinking water containing low levels of plastic is unlikely to cause chemical toxicosis. It has also been reported that the biofilm effect – the attachment and colonization of microplastics by microorganisms such as bacteria – is negligible.
The WTO (World Health Organization) suggested that we need not worry too much about these findings. The researchers admit, however, that further research is needed to improve accuracy.
Microplastics are therefore a potential risk to drinking water. A target date of 2024 was set for microplastic to be included on the list of emerging compounds in the European Drinking Water Directive (DWD), encouraging member states to take preventative measures to reduce microplastic should too high numbers be reported.
Inhalation, dermal contact, and consumption of microplastic can still cause detrimental effects on humans, even though it may not have major health impacts on them.
There have been growing concerns regarding the danger that microplastics pose to the marine ecosystem as a result of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of debris including microplastics in the North Pacific Ocean. According to research conducted in 2021, there are an estimated 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastic in the world’s upper oceans, weighing an estimated 82,000 to 578,000 tons, which is equivalent to roughly 30 billion 500-ml plastic water bottles.
Despite the fact that microplastics may not have a significant impact on human health, it has been shown to be harmful to aquatic species, if not deadly, when ingested through drinking water. The entanglement effect is renowned for the possibility of drowning, suffocating, or strangulating aquatic life as a result of the threat of drowning, suffocation, or strangulation. In fact, 55% of marine organism entanglement incidents have been linked to entanglement, with sea turtles, seabirds, and crustaceans among the most threatened species of marine organisms. The ingestion of microplastics, in addition to the entanglement effect, also causes a serious threat to the health of marine life, contributing to 31% of all marine life incidents.
Freshwater sources that contain microplastics
Natural freshwater systems around the world, such as wetlands, lakes and rivers, have been found to be contaminated with microplastics. A large amount of microplastics have been found in Lake Superior in North America, Swiss lakes in Europe, and Lake Taihu in China. These lakes are located in large quantities. However, their concentrations differ: scientists have found that the surface water of lakes in China and Saudi Arabia is much more contaminated than the surface water of lakes in other countries in Europe, North America, and Africa. This indicates that developing nations are experiencing much greater problems with microplastic pollution than other countries.
Freshwater organisms are also threatened by microplastics, just as marine life in oceans is threatened by entanglement and ingestion. Furthermore, freshwater systems – particularly rivers – are prone to accumulating microscopic particles that have far-reaching implications for the ecosystem because they favour the accumulation of microplastics.
It is known that microplastics accumulate in freshwater systems, especially at the source of rivers or streams. This is the area where pollutants are held for the longest time because of the relatively low flow speed of water in this area. As a result of low-flow conditions, it can take up to seven years for a source to move just one kilometre, which in turn is conducive to microplastics piling up.
It should be noted that organisms living in this area, such as some marine animals, are more likely to consume microplastics than organisms that live elsewhere. It has been shown that plastic debris stored in animals eventually enters the food chain and enters the diets of humans, which can then have a detrimental effect on the whole food chain.
The problem of microplastics in the polar regions
Since the polar regions are farther away from populated cities and commercial activities, it can be assumed that they are free of microplastic pollution due to their remote location. As a result of these factors, plastic debris has been found to be transported to both the Arctic and Antarctic regions through dust and winds and ocean currents. This is in addition to other conditions that arise from meteorological conditions. These plastic debris have been found in the ice cores and snow of the two regions.
Due to climate change, it has been found that in the Arctic region, 2.04 trillion cubic metres of ice will melt within the next 100 years. This will release at least one trillion pieces of plastic that have been stored in the ice. Microplastic particles were found for the first time in fresh snow in Antarctica in 2022, with a concentration of 29 microplastic particles per liter of melted snow. This concentration is much higher than what was observed in Antarctic sea ice, which had an average concentration of 12 pieces of plastic per liter of water.
There is a strong possibility that microplastic pollution in the sea ice in Antarctica will impede, if not completely paralyze, the marine food chain.
Besides the catastrophic impacts that microplastics have had to the polar regions, they have also exacerbated and accelerated global warming. It has already been reported that there is a rapid melting of snowfields, ice caps, and glaciers around the polar regions. Despite the fact that clean snowpacks, icefields, and glaciers can reflect a significant amount of sunlight, scientists have found that dark-coloured microplastics deposited at these locations can worsen the situation by absorbing sunlight and therefore contributing to increased local temperatures.
So How Can We Solve Microplastics Pollution?
In order to address microplastic contamination in water, preventive measures as well as removal measures need to be taken. A wastewater treatment system or a drinking water treatment system is one of the most effective methods of eliminating microplastics. It has the ability to remove more than 90% of them from wastewater. It is expected that such systems will have a similar level of efficiency when it comes to removing microplastics from drinking water.
A variety of programs have been implemented in order to raise awareness about this issue. In order to reduce the use of plastic, encourage recycling, and evaluate disposal facilities, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has been advocating for less plastic use. There were more than 40 million participants from 120 countries in the educational program. There was also an additional program initiated by the Global Plastics Associations in 2011 as part of the Joint Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations. The document aims at reducing waste and outline commitments to support a number of assessments to determine whether littering is an issue.
We have found another solution to tackle microplastics in water thanks to a groundbreaking invention – the robo-fish – which has provided us with another way of combating microplastics. It has been designed to be self-propelled, swimming around and latching onto microplastics that are floating on the surface of the water. As a result of these particles, fish are exposed to organic dyes, antibiotics, and heavy metals. These compounds have strong chemical bonds and electrostatic interactions with substances in the fish’s body. This will then allow the microplastics to cling to the surface of the fish. This will allow it to collect the microplastics from the water and remove them from it. The robo-fish is only capable of exploring water surfaces at the moment, but scientists are already working on developing a more functionally complex fish that will be able to explore deeper waters in the future.
Individuals can play a very significant role in reducing the amount of microplastic in water in addition to clean-up programs and technological innovations. In addition, products that are made from bio-based and biodegradable plastics and packaged in sustainable packaging can be viewed as an alternative to products that are made from conventional plastics. Individuals can play a key role in reusing and recycling plastic products as effective remedies if they take an active part in the process.
There is a need to drastically reduce the negative impacts of the food packaging industry on the environment in order to protect the future of our planet. While consumers can play a part in changing the situation by shopping more consciously when buying groceries and bringing a reusable container when ordering takeaway food, the issue will not be changed if food retailers and restaurants don’t also step up their game. For us to be able to reduce packaging waste, we need big companies to take the lead and make the necessary switch to more sustainable packaging alternatives for food packaging in order to achieve this goal.