Africa: Microplastics in Wastewater - Towards Solutions

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The world demands and produces more and more plastic every year, much of which eventually finds its way into rivers, lakes and the ocean. Analysis of water and sediment worldwide indicates that microplastics are ubiquitous in freshwater, marine ecosystems and soils.

Many plastic products are essential, but we need to consider the trade-offs which include microplastic pollution and global heating.

Over time, plastic products tend to shed smaller particles through natural weathering processes, creating microplastics, defined as less than 5mm in size.

Other microplastics are directly released into the environment in the form of small particulates. Toiletries and cosmetics may contain microplastics. The abrasion of large plastic objects such as the erosion of tyres when driving, or the abrasion of synthetic textiles during washing, are other sources of microplastics.

Microplastics enter water bodies through different pathways, including atmospheric deposition, run-off from contaminated land or through municipal wastewater.

Microplastics come in a large variety of sizes, colours and chemical compositions, and include fibres, fragments, pellets, flakes, sheets or foams.

Microfibres, which have been reported as the most abundant type of microplastics in wastewater and freshwaters, are of particular concern. They have been identified in the intestinal tract of zooplankton, river-bed organisms, and mussels. They can result in gut blockage and starvation.

"Water pollution by microplastics is complex and multidimensional, and managing it effectively requires a range of responses," says Birguy Lamizana, a wastewater expert with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and co-author of a study on microplastics in wastewater due to be launched either at the Stockholm World Water Week in August 2020 or at the United Nations Environment Assembly slated for February 2021.

"Water pollution by microplastics is complex and multidimensional, and managing it effectively requires a range of responses," says Birguy Lamizana, a wastewater expert with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and co-author of a study on microplastics in wastewater due to be launched either at the Stockholm World Water Week in August 2020 or at the United Nations Environment Assembly slated for February 2021.

The ongoing study, provisionally titled Assessing available technologies and providing a toolkit of options of technologies to remove plastic, microplastic and microfibres from wastewater and sludge is a collaboration between UNEP and the International Water Management Institute.

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