What are Microplastics Anyway?
The effects of microplastic contamination in aquatic environments has received limited study historically and has become only a recent concern. Microplastics are plastic particles less than 5 mm in size, cover a spectrum of shapes, and are derived from a variety of sources including microbeads (found in cosmetics), manufacturing pellets and synthetic fabrics. Microplastics cause water pollution from various pathways: stormwater runoff from urban environments, wind advection (particles are swept up into the air), atmospheric fallout (particles literally drop from the air onto land and water), and municipal wastewater discharge into water bodies. Let’s just take one very common pollution pathway example: microplastics from synthetic (man-made) clothing (such as nylon and polyester) making their way through municipal wastewater treatment plants. The accumulation of microplastics in marine organisms has been well-observed in recent years but documentation of its negative effects (e.g., translocation, bioaccumulation and trophic accumulation) is not robust.
What the Science Tells Us About Microplastics in Our Environment
Recent scientific studies have sought to measure the quantity of microplastic contamination in both municipal wastewater and atmospheric fallout. One study of 17 U.S. municipal wastewater facilities estimated each plant released more than 4 million microplastic particles per day (Mason et al., 2016). Another study estimated an average of 7 million microplastic particles per day were released by eight San Francisco Bay-area municipal wastewater plants (Sutton et al., 2016). Both studies collected samples by passing treated sewage from wastewater treatment plants through Tyler sieves for periods between 2 to 24 hours (Sutton et al., 2016; Mason et al., 2016). A third study measured microplastic atmospheric fallout in two urban environments between two and 355 particles/m2/day; estimating 29 percent of the fibers captured were synthetic or a mixture of natural and synthetic materials. Conclusions from all three studies include that:
- Large amounts of microplastics in both atmospheric fallout and municipal wastewater discharge were found in surface water bodies,
- Each of the studied pollution pathways (atmospheric deposition, municipal wastewater, stormwater runoff) were found to be significant to the release of microplastics into the environment but,
- The relative importance of one pollution pathway over the next is not discernable at this point in time.
Why We Should Care (and Learn More)
More research is needed to reach a more definitive agreement on the human and environmental impacts of microplastic contamination of aquatic environments. Building awareness around microplastic pollution from the use and proliferation of technical (synthetic fibers made from petroleum) materials in apparel manufacturing is important. Thus, I was heartened to read Schlossberg’s (2017) article today in The New York Times that discusses, in part, this issue. Read her article here titled, Fig Leaves Are Out. What to Wear to Be Kind to the Planet? And even more dramatic response to microplastics is written in this 2018 article in the New York Times about how the United Kingdom has begun to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetics. A good first step towards a very long and concerning problem.
Contact Kate Gaertner today to see what Triple Win Advisory can do to help your business and industry increase sustainability to result in a “triple win” for company profit and long-term competitive advantage, societal well-being, and successful environmental pollution mitigation.
Dris, Rachid; Gasperi, Johnny; Saad, Mohamed; Mirande, Cecile; Tassin, Bruno. (2016). Synthetic fibers in atmospheric fallout: A source of microplastics in the environment? Marine Pollution Bulletin, 104, p. 290-293.
Mason, Sherri A.; Garneau, Danielle; Sutton, Rebecca; Chu, Yvonne; Ehmann, Karyn; Barnes, Jason; Fink, Parker; Papazissimos, Daniel; Rogers, Darrin L. (2016). Microplastic pollution is widely detected in US municipal wastewater treatment plant effluent. Environmental Pollution, 218, p. 1045-1054.
Schlossberg, Tatiana. (2017, May 24). Fig Leaves Are Out. What to Wear to Be Kind to the Planet? The New York Times. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2rSZB4Q
Sutton, Rebecca; Mason, Sherri A.; Stanek, Shavonne K.; Willis-Norton, Ellen; Wren, Ian F.; Box, Carolyn. (2016). Microplastic contamination in the San Francisco Bay, California, USA. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 109, p. 230-235.[print_link]