Water. A compound made up of atoms; two hydrogen and one oxygen. It’s a transparent liquid that is an essential requirement for all living organisms on our planet. Every day billions of humans around the world causally turn on the faucet expecting a simple glass of water. However, hidden within in this simple liquid may be something rather alarming: microplastic fibers.
National Geographic Society, 2017, estimates that over 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic are discarded each year; that’s 91% of the total plastics worldwide. Plastics begin to degrade in the presence of oxygen and UV rays which, on average, takes 400 years to disappear completely—or so we think. The majority of plastics we discard will only break down into smaller and smaller pieces without completely disappearing. These microscopic plastics begin to accumulate over time. Combined with incorrect disposal or strong weather events the tiny plastics will make their way into our water sources eventually flowing to the ocean; 8 million metric tonnes to be exact (Parker, 2017).
In an effort to determine the extent of microplastic contamination, a study revealed that 83% of the world’s tap water contains foreign microscopic plastic fibers. This lead to, The School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, USA and Orb Media setting out to discover the truth about microplastic contamination in sources of drinking water across the globe. Armed with scientists, researchers, and volunteers, 159 samples of tap water from multiple countries and one geographical region were collected and analyzed; excluding Canada. Microscopic plastic fibers of 100 micrometers (100 micrometers equals 1 millimeter) or greater in size were found in 70% of the total samples at each collection site. The results illustrated that the United States and Lebanon had the highest rate of pollution with 94% of their water samples testing positive, while Europe had the lowest density detected at 72% (Kosuth et al., 2017).
The hypothesis of where these particles originate from is vast and could potentially include contamination from microbeads in hygiene products, leeching off plastic food and beverage containers, or flaking off clothing during the washing and drying processes. In fact, fleece and synthetic fabrics shed plastics with each wash; approximately 2,000 pieces from a single fleece jacket alone. Due to their, size microplastics travel down our drains and begin to accumulate in our wastewater drainage systems at alarming rates. Unfortunately, dated wastewater treatment plants quite often do not have the capability in some areas to screen these tiny plastics from water meaning they end up in our main water sources (Kosuth et al., 2017).
The good news about microplastics is the tides are now turning! Multiple global government agencies are taking action to slow or stop microplastics from entering into our waterways at the source. Local, provincial, and federal governments are crafting laws and policies to address this issue; Canada being a proactive leader on this topic. In February 2017, the International Joint Commission (ICJ) released a document highlighting their concern for environmental and human health due to small plastic particles. Using 33 expert opinions from across Canada and the United States, 10 strategic recommendations were documented to help our country battle against microplastics, specifically within our Great Lakes. The Canadian Government has identified this pressing issue early and is set to ban plastic microbeads in toiletries by July 2018 (ICJ, 2017).
Looking to help delay this problem? Join the global combat against microplastics in our valuable water resources. Loraas has three simple solutions:
- Pass information about microplastics to your family and friends. Plastic pollution is a trending topic among a number of media streams allowing for more individuals to understand and become proactive. Social pressures are causing communities to change their current trash habits and cleaning up contaminated areas. You can help by simply by sharing our blog on your social media channels.
- Always remember to reduce and reuse before you recycle. Our society is beginning to understand that there is no “away” in our throwaway culture. Instead of using disposable grocery bags, make a reusable bag out of an old t-shirt! Check out our Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to find out how. If recycling is your choice, ensure that your local recycling program accepts the plastic before placing into the recycling cart. For example, to ensure your disposable #2 or #4 grocery bags get recycled, take them back to your local participating grocery store.
- Always be mindful of the plastic products you buy and take responsibility for where you dispose of these products. Do your research before buying a product as there may be an alternative, environmentally-friendly solution. At the store, read the labels on your favourite personal hygiene products to ensure they do not contain plastic microbeads or check the bottom of the bottles to find the #1 to #7 recycling symbol.
Parker, L. 2017. A whopping 91% of plastics isn’t recycled. National Geographic Society. Accessed: 26 January 2017.