Microplastics Out of Our Drains (MOOD)
The need for new rules against microplastics
No matter where we live, every single one of us relies on clean waterways and fully functioning wastewater systems to live happy, healthy lives. Unfortunately, pollution poses several threats to these ecosystems on both a large and small scale – and one of the smallest forms of pollution is responsible for many of the biggest dangers.
Microplastics are a common type of manufacturing material used in a variety of products. In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that these micro-scaled plastic particles are doing tremendous damage to our environment, creating dangerous amounts of plastic waste in the oceans, and contributing to the sewer blockages and breakdowns that cause so many problems for people across the UK every day.
This is why Lanes Group has launched Microplastics Out of Our Drains (MOOD), a new campaign advocating for stricter UK rules on the use of microplastic particles in everyday manufacturing, as well as calling for better monitoring of this serious environmental problem, in order to help prevent its most harmful effects.
The facts on microplastics
Microplastics are tiny particles or fragments of plastic that measure less than 5mm. They are manufactured and incorporated into a wide variety of consumer products, usually to make them last longer, or to alter their quality in some other way.
There are two main sources of microplastics in the environment:
- Primary microplastics – plastic particles that have been created intentionally at a microscale for manufacturing, such as the microfibres found in clothing or personal care products.
- Secondary microplastics – plastic particles that are the result of the gradual breakdown of a larger plastic item, such as a discarded carrier bag or piece of packaging, resulting in small fragments.
Microplastics are entering the world’s water systems in vast quantities on a daily basis. Estimates from the Marine Conservation Society suggest that around 11 million tonnes of plastic enters the ocean every year, and around one million tonnes of this total is a direct result of primary microplastics.
These substances are getting into our rivers, seas and oceans from a number of sources:
- Products made using microplastics – such as wet wipes, cotton buds and period products – are often being dumped down the sink or into the drains when they shouldn’t be
- Microplastics are released into the wastewater system when washing clothes that contain synthetic fibres
- Larger plastics enter the water and break down over time
- Run-off from land-based sources – such as the content of landfills, tyre debris on the roads and road-marking paints – eventually makes its way into the ocean
As a result of all of these factors, and the sheer quantity of microplastics utilised by industries across the world on a daily basis, it was roughly estimated in 2021 that there are 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world’s upper oceans, with a combined weight of 82,000 to 578,000 tons – and that even this figure is likely to be underestimated, potentially significantly!
The impact of microplastics on our sewers and seas
The rapid spread of microplastics throughout our environment poses a major threat to our global ecosystem, with potentially grave consequences for human health.
Here are a few examples of the growing environmental impact that microplastics are having on global water systems and wildlife:
- Microplastics are being continually consumed by marine life at all stages of the food chain, including fish, plankton, whales, dolphins, turtles and seabirds. In a 2015 study, 63% of shrimp in the North Sea were found to contain synthetic fibres
- Humans are taking microplastics into their bodies through the food and water they consume, or by breathing them in through the air. Studies have indicated that this can be harmful in various ways, from cell death to allergic reactions
- Microplastic pollution can now be found across every part of the planet, including plastic content in snow found close to the peak of Mount Everest, plastic fragments found in the Mariana Trench (the deepest point of the ocean), and all the way into the once-pristine Arctic
- Plastic particles are also entering the human body in different ways, including entering the human bloodstream and appearing in the placentas of unborn babies
At this stage, microplastics have become so deeply embedded into the global environment that they can never be removed. It’s not yet known exactly what long-term health impact microplastics may have on humans and wildlife, or what type of plastic might cause the most harm, but it remains a very troubling trend.
In addition to their impact on the natural environment, microplastics also pose major challenges for our sewer network and wastewater systems:
- Products such as wet wipes, nappies, period care products, cotton buds and face masks are often wrongly flushed down the toilet or dumped down the drain, where their microplastic content makes them difficult to break down. This means they contribute to the formation of fatbergs and other stubborn sewer blockages
- Persistent blockages caused by the buildup of plastics in the drains can damage the pipes and sewers, leading to a greater risk of flooding and requiring time and money to be spent repairing the infrastructure
- Microplastic content needs to be carefully removed during the wastewater treatment and purification process, or else the plastic will make its way through to the oceans and rivers
Fortunately, water industry research has shown that existing wastewater treatment processes are succeeding in removing 99.9% of microplastic particles from sources of drinking water, despite not having been designed for this purpose. However, we need to do more to stop this plastic from entering the water environment in the first place.
Why current British law does not go far enough
The UK government has recognised that microplastics are a major environmental threat, and has passed laws to help prevent the spread of microplastics into our sewers and seas. Specifically, it has introduced a ban on microbeads, a specific type of tiny plastic particle used in cosmetic products for many years.
Thanks to the Environmental Protection (Microbeads) (England) Regulations 2017, manufacturers of cosmetics and personal care products are now banned from adding microbeads to rinse-off products such as face scrubs, toothpastes and shower gels, and retailers are no longer allowed to sell such products.
This has been a very positive step in the right direction – but more progress is still needed, for a number of reasons:
- The existing ban only covers microbeads within personal care products and cosmetics, which represent only 2% of microplastics released into the world’s oceans
- The legislation does not cover “leave-on” cosmetics, including makeup or moisturisers, as well as materials used in other household products such as detergents and fragrances
- The ban does nothing to prevent microbead pollution from liquid waste created by industrial processes, or from the use of microbeads in blast cleaning
- The current rules only apply to primary microplastics, which represent only a small proportion of the millions of tonnes of plastics entering the ocean each year, and therefore doesn’t do anything to tackle the issues caused by secondary microplastics
- Much more needs to be done to address microplastics associated with clothes washing, which is estimated to account for up to 35% of the total microplastic load in the ocean – rising as high as 70 to 100% of all microplastics in the ocean floor
Although the UK was one of the first countries to ban microbeads, we are now at risk of falling behind the curve as other nations prepare to take more wide-reaching action against microplastics.
Most notably, the European Union is currently in the process of discussing a new law to restrict the use of all intentionally added microplastic particles to consumer or professional use products of any kind. This would be a much more impactful ban, covering everything from microplastics used in fertilisers to plastics used as infill material on artificial pitches, with no lower limit on the size of the microplastics.
This proposed law is likely to be signed off in 2022, with additional options for reducing the release of secondary microplastics into our oceans also being considered. As such, it is the right time for the UK to be bolder in its own legal efforts against microplastics.
What are we calling for?
In order to effectively tackle the problems caused by microplastics, our MOOD campaign is calling for the following actions:
- The UK must match the proposed EU policy to ban ALL intentionally added microplastic particles in consumer or professional use products
- UK water companies should work to establish new regular monitoring programmes for microplastics, allowing them to track microplastic trends in influent, effluent, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and treated sewage sludge
- New legislation should be introduced for manufacturers to fit microfibre filters in all new domestic and commercial washing machines, and for existing commercial machines to be retrofitted with similar filters
Each of these goals align with those of the Marine Conservation Society, one of the UK’s leading environmental protection charities. According to figures quoted by the organisation, banning microplastics has the potential to reduce the amount of plastic entering our rivers and oceans by around 400,000 tonnes over a 20-year period.
Additionally, we are supporting calls for the appointment of a designated government minister for plastics pollution, who would have a cross-departmental remit for the control and prevention of plastic pollution, as well as oversight of environmental policies relating to plastics and their polluting effects. This recommendation was made by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Microplastics in its inaugural September 2021 report, and would help the government tackle this problem in a more accountable manner.
If you want to learn more about microplastics and the reasons why we have launched our MOOD campaign, take a look at the following resources:
- The Marine Conservation Society’s microplastics campaign hub
- The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Microplastics 2021 report, “Microplastic Policies for the Government”
- Greenpeace’s plastic pollution information page
- The Women’s Institute’s End Plastic Soup campaign, focusing specifically on microplastic fibre pollution
- Surfers Against Sewage’s plastic pollution campaign hub
- Unblocktober, Lanes Group’s annual public awareness campaign to prevent drain blockages by changing public habits
For more from Lanes Group about the environmental issues relating to microplastics, take a look at our latest blog posts below, or browse our complete library of microplastics insights:
- Unblocktober founder Lanes Group backs plans to ban wet wipesNational drainage and wastewater specialist Lanes Group plc – founder of Unblocktober, the world’s first campaign to improve our drains, sewers and seas – welcomes proposals to ban…
- What are Microplastics’ Effects on Humans?What are Microplastics’ Effects on Humans? Environmental scientists are only just beginning to understand the scale of microplastic pollution and the effects it could have on humans. Microplastics…
- How to Not Eat MicroplasticsMicroplastics are one of the biggest environmental concerns of our time. Trillions of pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm in length can be found throughout our natural environment,…