Microplastic Pollution: Dangers, Causes and Prevention

microplastic pollution

Microplastic Pollution: Dangers, Causes and Prevention

Plastic and microplastic pollution has become a threat to global ecology. Microplastics are also a cause for health concern. But what are the sources of microplastics? And how can microplastic pollution be prevented?



Understanding Microplastics

Plastic is a serious threat to our environment, especially to freshwater ecosystems. Microplastics (MPs) are tiny plastic particles. MPs range from 1 micron to 5 millimetres in size and can be classified into primary MPs and secondary MPs. Primary MPs are plastics that have been manufactured small. Secondary MPs result from the breakdown of larger plastic items. Rivers are significant pathways for MP pollution, causing marine litter.


The Dangers of Microplastic Pollution

MPs pose significant risks to wildlife and humans. Studies have found MPs in various river-dwelling creatures, including 72% of brown trout and 53% of otter spraints. MPs also move up the food chain, reaching top predators once they eat prey containing MPs. 83% of Ireland’s drinking water comes from surface water, including rivers. As a result, MPs can often end up in our bodies too. A Dutch study showed that up to 80% of people may have MPs in their blood. Research has linked the presence of MPs in arteries to a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes.


Sources of Microplastic Pollution

Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTPs)

WWTPs capture a large portion of MPs. 97-99% of MPs are retained in sludge during primary treatment. However, this sludge is often spread on land, reintroducing MPs into the environment. Additionally, MPs that do escape WWTPs can end up in our rivers.

Construction Industry

The construction industry in Europe consumes 10 million tonnes of plastic each year.  Plastic pipes account for over 50% of annual tonnage. Cutting these materials during construction produces and releases MPs.

MP pathways construction

Artificial Grass Pitches

Artificial grass pitches are increasingly replacing natural pitches. Over the last decade, artificial pitches have become a popular choice for community sports. The artificial grass turf comprises plastic. These pitches can contain up to 140 tonnes of plastic material. As they wear down, they release MPs into the environment.

MP pathways artificial grass


Preventing Microplastic Pollution

Improving Wastewater Treatment

To reduce MP pollution, we need better water monitoring data. Such data will help to see how different treatment levels (primary, secondary, tertiary) affect MP removal. Policies should also aim to reduce microfibres entering WWTPs. This may be achieved by adding filters to washing machines, for example.

Managing Construction Sites

Construction sites should conduct waste audits to understand and reduce MP production. Building information models can minimise the need to cut plastic materials. Reducing plastic cutting will decrease MP waste.

Enhancing Artificial Pitches

Artificial pitches should have built-in drainage systems with sand to trap MPs. Installing steel boot-cleaning grids would reduce crumb transfer from the pitch. Retainer walls can also help minimise crumb and MP spread.


Conclusion for Microplastic Pollution

Continuous monitoring in river catchments is essential to combat microplastic pollution. This monitoring should be part of river basin management plans in Ireland. Southern Scientific offers water monitoring testing and environmental consultancy to help. Monitoring followed by interventions will reduce the ecological impact of MPs.


Contact our team of experts to tackle microplastic pollution today!

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