Plastics, used in the manufacture of plastic products, are characterized by a number of useful features, including, in particular, durability, resistance or insulating properties. For this reason, their production is increasing worldwide. These products, once used, enter the environment as waste, often in an already shredded form, as plastic microparticles (Hartmann et al., 2019). Microplastics are called polymer fines, which are usually defined as particles smaller than 5 mm relative to their largest dimension (Thompson et al., 2009; Maszczyk et al., 2022). They create waste that is persistent, mobile and ubiquitous in terrestrial and aquatic habitats, including cities, rural areas and even in such remote locations as the seafloor (Hartmann et al., 2019). Numerous studies have shown that their presence in the environment, including surface waters, is increasing and of concern.
How are plastic microparticles formed and what are the sources of their emissions?
Plastic products consist of synthetic or highly modified natural high molecular weight polymers, and the most popular include polyethylene (PE), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB). Among the most commonly detected substances forming plastic microparticles in environments around the world are polyethylene and polystyrene, used mainly as packaging (Hwang et al, 2020; Ng and Obbard, 2006; Stanton et al, 2020).
Microscopic plastic particles can be divided by their origin into primary and secondary microplastics. The former, now increasingly regulated, is deliberately produced in small sizes and used in cosmetics, wardrobe or cleaning products, among other applications. Plastic microparticles known as secondary microplastics are formed by the breakdown process of larger plastic fragments, such as bottles, bags and packaging. Under the influence of environmental factors, including UV radiation, leaching and wiping or through the action of some living organisms, they break down into smaller and smaller fragments. It is estimated that they may account for as much as 80 percent. microplastic found in the seas and oceans.
Microparticles of plastic can be created in our homes, if only by the disintegration of textiles during laundering. Consequently, these fine plastic particles end up in rivers, lakes or oceans and pose a serious threat to aquatic organisms and the entire ecosystem, and can appear in the food chain, affecting the health of aquatic animals and ultimately humans. It is estimated that a city dweller consumes an average of 5 grams of microplastics per week, equivalent to a credit card by weight (Gruber et al., 2022). So it’s easy to see why controlling the sources of microplastics and their impact on ecosystems has become a priority for environmental efforts.
Interreg Baltic Sea Region Lakes connect project – pilot study of microplastic content in lakes
Research on the content of plastic microparticles in inland aquatic ecosystems began relatively recently, only in the second decade of the 21st century (Pozdnyakov et al., 2011; Morritt et al., 2014). Although the problem is not yet well understood, the presence of plastic particles can be expected in various ecosystems in Poland, including in lakes isolated from urban areas, in places difficult to access by humans.
This issue, among others, is addressed by the “Lakes connect” project, implemented under the Interreg Baltic Sea Region program. This initiative responds to the major challenge of protecting lakes heavily used for tourism. Its goal is cooperation between various organizations working to improve the quality of lake water in tourist regions. “Lakes connect” brings together representatives of science, NGOs and authorities at various levels of governance from the three Baltic countries of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
As part of the project, we are studying lakes in the three countries, including analyzing the plastic microparticles taken (Photo 1). The pilot study is being conducted by the University of Warsaw and the Foundation for the Protection of the Great Masurian Lakes (Poland), the Gulbene Municipality, the Latvian Institute of Aquatic Ecology (Latvia) and the Telša Chamber of Commerce (Lithuania). The work is scheduled on a cycle that takes into account tourist traffic, with water and sediment sampling before, during and after the season. Recommendations will include education, tourism and law. The project aims to develop green concepts for lake protection and strengthen cooperation between scientists and the government, promoting innovative methods of environmental protection.
Currently introduced regulations for plastics
With growing awareness of the sources of plastic microparticle formation and emissions, there are several general trends and initiatives to increase control and reduce the use of plastics. Examples of regulations and actions include:
1. bans and restrictions on single-use plastic products. Many European Union countries have banned or restricted single-use plastic products such as cutlery, straws, plates and cups. The goal is to reduce the amount of plastic waste, especially in tourist attractions with abundant food and beverage facilities. An example of this is the law in effect as of May 24, 2023, implemented in connection with Directive (EU) 2019/904 of the European Parliament and the Council of June 5, 2019. On reducing the environmental impact of certain plastic products. It prohibits, among other things. sales of disposable plastic products in Poland. It seeks to reduce or completely eliminate single-use products from the market, which are poorly recyclable and thus end up in the environment, including as micro-particles of plastic.
2 Plastic bag fees. In some places, fees have been introduced for the use of single-use plastic shopping bags to encourage people to choose reusable ones. An example of such a measure is the introduction in Poland as of January 1, 2018. A recycling fee on each 15- to 50-micron plastic bag sold. The idea behind the introduced regulation is to instill in the public shopping awareness, thoughtful packaging of products, and the reflex to use their own bags.
3. promote recycling. Many countries are supporting efforts to promote plastic recycling, primarily by setting standards and investing in infrastructure. As part of the Green Deal, in Europe by 2030, 55 percent. plastic packaging waste should be recycled. This would mean designing plastic products thoughtfully, taking into account the possibility of reuse. Initiatives are also needed to stimulate the market for recycled plastics, which could include: 1) Creating quality standards for secondary plastics; 2) Encouraging certification of products made from recycled plastics to increase contractor and consumer confidence; 3) Introducing mandatory rules on the minimum content of recycled materials in certain products; 4) Encouraging EU member states to possibly reduce VAT on recycled products.
4. banning microplastics in cosmetics. A major change in cosmetics regulations is now emerging in many countries. New regulations have been introduced by Commission Regulation (EU) 2023/2055 of September 25, 2023, which modifies Annex XVII to Regulation (EC) No. 1907/2006 of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) in the context of synthetic polymer microparticles. Under the new law, plastic microparticles may not be placed on the market as substances on their own or in mixtures in concentrations ≥0.01 percent. In practice, this means a ban on the use of synthetic polymer microparticles in the cosmetics industry. The provision will apply to a wide range of raw materials that perform a variety of functions, including thickeners, emulsifiers, stabilizers and ingredients that improve the application properties of cosmetics. In addition, new obligations are in the process of being defined, for example, in terms of labeling that will be imposed on cosmetic companies (e.g., labeling of how a product is used and disposed of, or IFUD, or Information for Use and Disposal) or suppliers of cosmetic raw materials. For many categories of cosmetic products, manufacturers will be forced to change the performance characteristics due to the need to develop a new formulation.
5 Develop alternative materials. Research and industry initiatives focus on developing technologies for alternative materials, such as biodegradable plastics or plant-based substances. Biodegradable raw materials are also used in Poland, such as plates made from bran (waste from flour production). The technology for making disposable dishes from wheat scraps was developed years ago by miller Jerzy Wysocki. Nowadays, they can even be found in some fast food chains.
6. education and awareness raising. Governmental and non-governmental organizations are conducting educational campaigns to raise public awareness of the problems associated with plastic waste and to promote more sustainable alternatives. An example is the action of the PlasticsEurope Poland Foundation, which in its information campaign “Plastic not to the stove, stove not toplastics” draws attention to the fact that instead of burning plastic waste, contributing to air pollution, it should be properly segregated. There are also various educational courses, such as the one offered by the Edulandia.edu Education Center, which offers a courseon“What is microplastic, where do we find it, its impact on the environment and human health.”
How to reduce the use of plastics in everyday life?
The list of ideas for reducing the use of plastics in everyday life does not end with the above items. Other potential solutions include a number of initiatives to reduce the negative impact of plastics on the environment, especially water. These include:
1 Improve wastewater treatment systems to more effectively remove microplastic particles. Microplastics in wastewater come primarily from cosmetics and clothes, from which they are washed out during laundering. In raw wastewater, the concentrations of these particles reach up to several thousand particles per m3. Although more than 90 percent is removed in the water treatment process, the remaining 10 percent is regularly, continuously introduced into surface water and poses a significant threat to the environment. The efficiency of eliminating microplastic particles is higher the larger the size of the particles. It can be improved by using in the third stage of treatment rush filtration or membrane processes.
2 Develop modern technologies such as membrane filters and adsorption technologies that can effectively remove plastic microparticles from water. An example of such an activity is the scientific research within the framework of the project “Removal of microplastics in an integrated system of aerobic granular sludge – membrane filtration and the effect of microplastics on biomass structure and activity” funded by the National Science Center at the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn.
Another interesting example is an innovative way to quickly remove microplastics from water that researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne have developed. They used a sorption material in the form of a powder that traps plastic microparticles 1,000 times smaller than those currently detected and removed by wastewater treatment plants. While it can take up to several days to purify the water from them using existing methods, the procedure developed by the Australian team cheaply and sustainably achieves better results in one hour. Since the nanomaterial used contains iron, magnets can be used to easily separate the microplastic and impurities from the water. The adsorbent is designed to attract plastic microparticles without creating secondary pollutants or a carbon footprint.
3 Regularly monitor the amount of microplastics in the waters and use the results of the research to improve conservation measures. An example of this is the work being done by the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution in collaboration with Triple Ring Technologies on a sensor that detects microplastics. The device will make it possible to measure the number of plastic particles in water under field conditions. By collecting local data, the sensor will make it possible to assess microplastic contamination of waterways, sewage, storm drain water and other areas where microplastic particles can be a problem.
4. educating the public about the problem of microplastics and the need to protect water can lead to behavioral change and more responsible use of plastic products. An example of such action is the activity undertaken by the Polish Ecological Club of Gdansk, supported by the Clean Baltic Coalition of Uppsala and cooperating with all Baltic Sea countries, which has prepared a set of lectures, films, tasks and animations to raise awareness of littering in our common sea – the Baltic.
5. it is not insignificant to organize regular cleanup campaigns of beaches and coastal areas to minimize the amount of plastic entering the waters.
How can we increase the chances of success in reducing microplastics?
Protecting water from microplastics requires extensive cooperation at various levels. The above measures can be effective if implemented jointly by society, industry, governments and NGOs. Sources that emit plastic microparticles are diverse, and these pollutants can enter river and sea water with various types of wastewater.
There are several areas where action can be taken to minimize the impact of plastic on water. First and foremost is the aforementioned encouragement of recycling and reduction in the use of single-use plastic products. It is also necessary to impose appropriately stringent standards and restrictions on the production, use and disposal of plastics, especially those that have the potential to create microplastics. The EU’s Extended Producer Responsibility Directive (ROP) is an example of such action. According to the Polish draft of these regulations, the minimum recycled plastic content is to be 30 percent by 2026, and as much as 65 percent a decade later. Implementation of the ROP will make it more advantageous for manufacturers to use recycled plastics than virgin plastic. It is also important to change consumer habits by promoting the reduction of plastic consumption and choosing packaging products in a more responsible way. Education and awareness development, as well as labeling products with symbols indicating their microplastic content, are very helpful in this regard (Photo 2.). A good complement to these practices is also promoting the idea of store without packaging. Conscious consumer behavior encompasses many options, including thoughtful shopping and sticking to a pre-prepared list, as well as avoiding over-packaged products, using reusable bags, choosing returnable, biodegradable and reusable packaging, buying durable, reusable products and those with eco-certifications.
Potential changes also affect the industry and manufacturers. Recall Europe’s Green Dot recycling program, which is based on the principle that producers pay a fee for packaging, and then the funds are used to finance recycling programs. One industrial initiative to reduce microplastic emissions is the Zero Pellet Loss program, which addresses the problem of losses in industrial processes. Granules are small balls of plastic used as raw material for production. The initiative focuses on reducing granule leakage during plastic production, transportation and processing. It works by introducing better management practices, using appropriate safety systems, and educating workers and industrialists about the consequences of granular spills into the environment. Companies participating in this initiative are committed to minimizing the loss of raw material and taking measures to prevent environmental pollution. This program is often supported by industry associations and organizations (e.g., J&M PLAST, PTL, SPHERE SPAIN and SPHERE NEDERLAND), with the goal of reducing microplastics from granular spills throughout the supply chain.
Making changes in these areas can help reduce the amount of plastic entering waterways and thereby reduce the impact of microplastics on aquatic ecosystems, as well as accelerate the transformation of our consumer habits to more sustainable ones. It is important to involve the public, industry, governments and NGOs in taking action to protect the water environment.
The Lakes connect project is co-financed by the Baltic Sea Region Interreg Program 2021 – 2027 (Priority 2. Societies using water prudently, project number #S008). Our activity can be followed on the website of the Interreg Batic Sea Region Lakes connect program.
The article draws on works by, among others:
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