New research has determined that current wastewater treatment processes may not effectively filter microplastic contamination, causing potential problems for human health and aquatic environments as the accumulation of plastic continues to surge globally.
Scientists wanted to understand how microplastic pollution breaks down and interacts with water and wastewater treatment processes so they measured the efficiency of existing wastewater treatment processes to remove nano and microplastics measuring less than 5 millimeters in size. In their findings published in Water Research, the researchers revealed that processes used to purify used water may break down tiny pieces of plastic even further presenting serious concern for the quality of treated water.
Study author Judy Lee in a statement, said, “The presence of nano and microplastics in water has become a major environmental challenge. Due to their small size, nano and microplastics can easily be ingested by living organisms and travel along water and wastewater treatment processes. In large quantities, they impact the performance of water treatment processes by clogging up filtration units and increasing wear and tear on materials used in the design of water treatment units.”
The study states that an estimated 300 million tons of plastic are produced around the world globally, out of which 13 million is released into rivers and oceans. If this rate remains steady, current projections submit that there will be 250 million tons of plastic in waterways by the year 2025. As plastic does not decompose through weather or other aging processes, its accumulation in water systems around the world has the potential to threaten aquatic environments and human health. But detecting the presence of such tiny plastic contaminants poses a major challenge.
The study authors wrote, “A key challenge in their detection resides in the relatively inadequate analytical techniques available preventing deep understanding of the fate of nano/microplastics in water. The occurrence of such microscopic plastic pollution in water and wastewater treatment plants pose “a concern for the quality of the treated water.”
As microplastics are produced in all shapes and sizes from a variety of different materials, their detection in water treatment systems is particularly tough. Furthermore, different treatment processes affect plastics in different ways as the chemical makeup varies greatly. To counter this, researchers suggest developing new strategies for understanding and improving the efficiency and accuracy of treatment processes in order to meet required safety standards, in that way reducing potential threats to ecosystems.