Water Industry News

Poor Wastewater Management ‘The Main Source’ Of Microplastic Pollution

Water companies’ management of untreated wastewater and raw sewage has been identified as the main source of microplastic pollution in rivers around the UK, with firms releasing wastewater during dry weather into river flows that are too slow to disperse these microplastics downstream.


New research carried out by the University of Manchester, published in the Nature Sustainability journal, explained that conventional wastewater treatment removes most of the microplastic load in wastewater, so if river beds are found to be heavily contaminated in this way, it’s a clear indication of poor wastewater management.


It’s important to maintain the quality of riverbed habitats, as these underpin the river ecosystem in its entirety, with many creatures living, feeding and reproducing in this environment.


When waterways become contaminated with microplastics, these particles are stored on the bed for weeks and even months, so ecosystem exposure is maximised, as a result. This, in turn, increases opportunities for ingestion by aquatic creatures, enabling them to move through the food chain.


Lead author of the study professor Jamie Woodward called on the water companies to follow the science and be more responsible with wastewater management, as well as calling for stronger regulation from the Environment Agency.


He went on to say: “Water companies must stop releasing untreated sewage and wastewater into rivers during periods of dry weather, as this causes river beds to be heavily contaminated with microplastics and maximises habitat damage.


“Rivers are also the main supplier of microplastics to the oceans – to tackle the global marine microplastic problem, we need to limit their input to rivers.”


Last month (April), the Environment Agency revealed that raw sewage was discharged into England’s rivers more than 400,000 times by water companies in 2020. United Utilities in the north-west had the longest duration of spills over the year at 726,450 hours.


According to the Agency, storm overflows are a vital part of the sewerage system and not a sign that the system is faulty, but campaigners are now eager to see further investment in sewage system capacity to manage periods of high demand – important since climate change is expected to increase the number of extreme weather events we’ll see.


In March, the government announced that new measures would be brought in to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows, which is essential if we are to reduce the amount of pollution entering the waterways around the country.


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