News Feature | June 19, 2018

Wastewater Plants Linked To Microplastic Pollution

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

A new study has linked wastewater treatment plants to microplastic pollution in rivers in the United Kingdom.

The study from researchers at the University of Leeds is one of the first papers to describe likely sources of microplastic pollution in rivers, according to AZO CleanTech.

“It is well established that the oceans contain significant accumulations of plastic debris but only very recently have studies began to look at sources of microplastics in river catchments,” the researchers stated in their study, published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research.

The study focused on six wastewater treatment plants in the north of England, according to The Irish News. Researchers measured microplastic concentrations up and downstream of the plants.

The researchers found an elevated level of microplastics in all samples. On average, microplastic levels were three times higher than normal, although in one sample they were elevated by a factor of 69.  

“The treatment plants included in the study varied in the size of the population they served, the treatment technologies used and the river's characteristics. These variations allowed for a broader understanding of how different factors could affect how much wastewater treatment plants contribute to microplastic pollution,” according to a statement from the University of Leeds.

Wastewater treatment plants may be an entry point for microplastics in industrial wastewater and domestic wastewater (for example, textile microfibers from washing machines), the researchers stated.

“Wastewater treatment plants may also contribute secondary microplastics as a result of plastics caught in the treatment process breaking down further,” the university statement added.

The study characterized the kind of microplastics common in rivers.

“The researchers also found that 90 percent of the microplastics they found were in the form of fragments and fibers rather than microbeads, leading them to warn about the role of synthetic fabrics in long-term environmental harm,” The Irish News reported.

According to lead author Paul Kay, microplastics are among the least studied forms of contamination in river systems.

“Finding key entry points of microplastics, such as wastewater treatment plants, can provide focus points to combating their distribution,” he said in a statement.

Wastewater treatment plants, however, are not the sole source of microplastics in the environment.

“Pervasive microplastics were also found in our upstream water samples. So while strengthening environmental procedures at treatment plants could be a big step in halting their spread, we cannot ignore the other ways microplastics are getting into our rivers,” Kay said.