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Microplastic pollution could reduce drinking water quality

Written by Katie Gordon

plastic in ocean

Microplastic pollution in streams may be negatively impacting our drinking water quality as well as damaging the aquatic ecosystem.

Over recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of the impact plastic pollution has on the environment. Microplastic pollution, particularly pollution of waterways, is one aspect of this that has received substantial attention.

Whilst the harmful consequences of microplastic pollution on marine wildlife is well understood, there has been significantly less consideration for the interaction of microplastics with water treatment processes.

Now, however, researchers from both the University of Surrey (Guildford, UK) and the Institute for Frontier Materials (Victoria, Australia) have demonstrated how microplastic pollution interacts with water and wastewater treatment and the negative consequences of this.

“The presence of microplastics in water has become a major environmental challenge” explained project lead Judy Lee (University of Surrey). “Due to their small size, nano and microplastics can easily be ingested by living organisms and travel along water and wastewater treatment processes.”

The review, published recently in Water Research, discovered that when wastewater contaminated with microplastics enters wastewater treatment plants, microplastics collide with each other which causes them to fragment into nanoplastics.

These microplastics and nanoplastics cause damage to the water treatment plants by blocking pores involved in the filtration processes and wearing down the treatment units. This reduces the efficiency of the process and risks treated water not meeting the required safety standards.

According to the study, we annually produce around 300 million tons of plastic around the world and up to 13 million tons of this ends up in our rivers and oceans. If we continue in this fashion, current projections suggest that this will amount to 250 million tons of plastic in waterways by 2025.

Since plastic is not degraded naturally by weathering and aging, plastic will continue to accumulate in our waterways. This highlights the need for novel techniques to remove microplastics from waterways to lessen the impact of microplastic pollution on our ecosystem and human health.