By Chase Drossos And Nathalie Gilet
Plastic has had tremendous impact on society in ways both large and small, such as with microplastics — tiny substances creating a huge problem.
Sustainability is a growing concern both in American society and globally, changing customer demand across industries. It is a diverse subject as addressed in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have established a broad set of interconnecting dimensions that cover economic, social, and environmental sustainability factors (see Figure 1).
Because water is necessary for life, it is unsurprising that multiple, interconnected SDGs speak to the central responsibility that the water and wastewater industry holds in promoting sustainability:
- SDG 6 — Clean Water and Sanitation
- SDG 9 — Innovation and Infrastructure
- SDG 14 — Life Below Water
One element of sustainability that particularly impacts the water industry is the increase in plastic pollution, driven by the global use of plastics and shortfalls in its collection, recycling, and safe disposal. As highlighted on World Oceans Day, organized by the UN each year June 8, this leads to a host of problems, including the infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and its negative impacts on marine and coastal biodiversity.
Plastic covers more than just obvious items such as bottles, bags, and straws in the ocean. It also includes microplastics — particles suspended in water and measured in millimeters (typically defined as less than 5 mm/0.2 inches). Often invisible to the eye, they can be ingested by marine life, animals, and humans (either from the water or through the food chain), building up in their bodies. They originate from various sources, including the breakdown of plastic items that may end up in waterways and oceans due to mismanagement of solid waste — but also directly from wastewater discharges. Microplastic is found in a range of products, including microbeads added to toothpaste or exfoliants, and can even come from the use of washing machines due to increased use of synthetic fabrics, which break down during the cycle. This is not a small phenomenon: studies by Orb Media found microplastics in 93 percent of bottled water samples and 94 percent of tap water in the U.S.
Figure 2. *This is measured as the total mismanaged waste by populations within 50 km [31miles] of the coastline, and therefore defined as high risk of entering the oceans. Mismanaged plastic waste is defined as “plastic that is either littered or inadequately disposed. Inadequately disposed waste is not formally managed and includes disposal in dumps or open, uncontrolled landfills, where it is not fully contained. Mismanaged waste could eventually enter the ocean viain land waterways, wastewater outflows, and transport by wind or tides.”
The discovery of microplastics is recent, and the effects of it on animals, fish, and human health are still not well known. The World Health Organization launched a study in 2018 to research the impact of bioaccumulation of microplastics in the human body, but like other studies on the topic, it is still accumulating data.
The oceans are a shared resource and critical to the health of the planet. As such, solving the microplastics issue requires global solutions and collaboration among countries and global business interests. This provides a large funding pool for research and, because the market for an effective response is so big, solutions to the various issues will be rewarded by global demand.
At the same time, the global nature of the issue can also present difficulties. Buy-in from many countries is needed, matched with effective international organization and cooperation. Figure 2 shows much of the problem. While this isn’t a direct correlation to microplastic mismanagement, it does indicate where more microplastics are entering the environment.
The World Health Organization launched a study in 2018 to research the impact of bioaccumulation of microplastics in the human body, but like other studies on the topic, it is still accumulating data.
A first reading indicates that China and Southeast Asian countries overwhelmingly contribute to plastic waste mismanagement, while the U.S. and European countries play a very small part despite producing and using a lot of plastic. (The U.S. is one of the world’s largest producers and users of plastic.) We could think this means the U.S. and Europe are managing their plastic waste very well. However, the reality is more complex: after sorting their waste, western countries do not treat it locally but instead send it to developing countries to be treated at a cheaper cost. For decades, Europe and the U.S. sent most of their waste to China, which was processing about 45 percent of the world’s plastic scrap (as well as paper, metal, and textile waste). In 2018, China, tired of being “the world’s trash bin” and receiving a majority of low-quality, mixed, and/or contaminated plastics, which are difficult and expensive — if not impossible — to recycle, abruptly decided to ban most waste imports. After a period of panic when no one seemed to know what to do with the piling up of domestic waste (the U.S. had sent 16 million tons of waste to China in 2016), Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam accepted the influx. However, they were not ready to deal with this massive amount of waste, in terms of infrastructure and resources. As a result, illegal dumps are flourishing, from which waste is escaping into the environment. The situation is so problematic that Malaysia also decided to place a ban on waste imports in late 2018, and Thailand has recently announced its plans to ban waste imports after 2021.
To tackle this issue, multiple solutions are needed. First, management capabilities need to be scaled up to ensure that waste is managed and treated properly and does not end up in dumps or the ocean. This can be done in Southeast Asian countries, but other nations should also take steps to spread the burden and avoid blockages like the one created by the 2018 China ban.
Domestic recycling facilities in Western countries can also have a major salutary effect, including promoting employment. But, first and foremost, plastic waste-producing countries need to work on reducing use, thereby lowering the amount of waste to be treated.
Internatonal action to address waste management is shaping up: In May 2019, all countries that were part of the 1992 Basel Convention treaty on the movement of hazardous waste between nations signed a legally binding agreement to track and limit the trade of low-quality, mixed, and contaminated plastics. Under this agreement, countries wishing to export most mixed and contaminated plastics will have to obtain consent from the receiving country first. This means that recyclers in Western countries will have to improve their sorting practices, which should also improve the recycling rate of plastic (currently at a very low 9 percent globally).
On the microplastics front, industry participants are taking action — one example of this is SUEZ (a global enterprise), which announced the launch of the first-ever research program focused on microfiber pollution at World Oceans Day. They are also involved in research on microplastics, including developing reliable and accurate measurement and treatment techniques. The detection of microplastics is a key topic because, although it is already known that oceans, lakes, rivers, air, and soil are contaminated, it is not yet fully quantified.
Innovation in design, equipment, and processes will all add to the solution in the future and will require collaboration across multiple industries and stakeholders.
Detection is also critical to the utilities and beverage industries, as well as anyone who uses water in their consumable manufacturing operation, because microplastics have been found in everything from beer to bottled and tap water. Manufacturers will likely need to add pretreatment infrastructure to reduce the amount of microplastics in their products until a global solution is developed.
Wastewater infrastructure today is not effective at filtering out microplastics from effluents, allowing it to flow into lakes, rivers, and oceans. As the last possible point at which preventive measures can be taken before microplastics enter the natural water cycle, wastewater facilities are key to addressing the problem. More microplastics in water also means more potential for pollution of treated drinking water, further complicating the risk.
In addition to changes in cosmetics and apparel, wastewater will need to gain insight into agriculture (both land and sea) to understand the effects of the use of biosolids as fertilizers and the impact on aquaculture with fish at risk of microplastic ingestion.
Innovation in design, equipment, and processes will all add to the solution in the future and will require collaboration across multiple industries and stakeholders. There is also the possibility that more biodegradable plastics will be developed, such as plant-based substitutes that can be returned to the environment after use and biodegrade similarly to other environmentally conscious products.
Innovation in the waste industry is also creating new lower-cost and environmentally friendly ways of managing plastics waste. For example, a research team from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden is developing a nanocoating that can be applied to plastic waste that will degrade the plastic after exposure to sunlight. This technology could be a breakthrough to greatly mitigate the mismanagement of plastic waste because it would enable countries to degrade their waste at a low cost and with minimal impact to current infrastructure, increasing accessibility for countries currently unable to afford the cost of proper plastic waste management. The application of this nanotech might even be part of the solution for treating microplastics in effluent before discharge.
Unfortunately, there are not yet regulations of microplastic in the U.S. and many other jurisdictions for water or wastewater treatment, although some effort has been made to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetic products. (By press time, this will be in full effect.) Without regulation, the UN SDGs are the best guides available. However, an expedient, efficient, and comprehensive adaptation by the industry is less likely.
On the other hand, the lack of regulation presents a great opportunity for communities and companies to take a leadership role and be first to market with solutions.
Addressing microplastics today could look like the following:
- Responsibility at the individual level — a conscious effort to self-educate on the issues and adopt best practices in consumption habits to stave off the anticipated increases in microplastics
- Responsibility at the business level — consideration for including microplastics within its sustainability risk profile tracked within a company’s enterprise risk management program with appropriate action plans based on risk appetite with considerations for fiduciary commitments, social responsibility, and innovation/infrastructure development.
Solutions to issues like microplastics are a global effort with contributions from multiple stakeholders. This interconnectivity is a very important element of enhancing sustainability and can become a complex balance between profitability, confidentiality, and social responsibility.
About The Authors
Chase Drossos is a Senior Manager in the Water Group at Mazars USA, a national accounting, tax, and consulting firm. He provides public accounting and audit services to both regulated and non-regulated utilities.
Nathalie Gilet is a Manager, Sustainability Services at Mazars USA, where she helps businesses and public bodies define and implement strategies, organizations, and tools to support their sustainability approaches.