This week researchers from the University of Glasgow’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies joined members of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, MP’s and others in Westminster to deliver the first report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Microplastics, which focuses primarily on the control of microplastic fibres.
Microplastics are plastic items or fragments measuring less than 5mm in size. They have a plethora of diverse sources, are recognised as pervasive and long-lasting pollutants, and represent an increasing proportion of marine litter. Their potential effects on the conditions in marine and terrestrial environments as well as on the health of the organisms that inhabit them are of widespread concern, much of which has centred on the exposure of humans (through our food, water and even the air) and the impacts that this might have.
Amongst the most abundant categories of microplastics are microplastic fibres. Their sources include our clothes, soft furnishings, and other textiles, and they may be shed during day to day use or lost to our water treatment systems during cleaning. Unfortunately, despite many of our wastewater treatment plants being over 95% efficient in removing plastics, the amount reaching the facilities is so high that billions of microplastics may be lost per treatment works per year.
Since 2011, Dr Natalie Welden from the Environmental Science and Sustainability research group in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies and colleagues at the University of Glasgow have been working to better understand the formation, transport and impacts of microplastics in Scottish waters. Of particular interest to researchers has been the impact of plastics from domestic sources, such as plastic fibres, on commercially important seafood species. For example, our Scottish langoustine seem to be frequently full of fibres, with over 80% of individuals from the Clyde Sea (the most affected area) having at least a few in their stomachs.
As a result of this and other observations, the team has also been helping to publicise and reduce microplastic pollution. As part of this effort, Dr Welden has worked with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (the driving force behind the formation of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Microplastics and its secretariat) in support of the End Plastic Soup Campaign, as well as assisting on the NFWI’s In a Spin Report which explores microfibre production from domestic laundry.
With the formation of the APPG, Dr Welden has joined other experts including washing machine manufacturers, domestic appliance trade associations, representatives of clothing consortiums, industry and retail consortiums, leading academics and environmental NGOs to contribute to the report. Through a series of roundtable discussions, members reviewed the available evidence concerning the sources, transport and impacts microfibres, as well as the recent developments in microplastic capture to identify a range of actionable policy responses.
In addition to suggesting the appointment of a Minister of Plastic Pollution, the synthesised report contains recommendations under the following themes.
Awareness and behavioural change
The UK public has already indicated its concern regarding plastic in the marine environment and has shown apparent willingness to take action to limit the use of unnecessary plastics. By harnessing this willingness and identifying appropriate methods for the reduction of microplastic pollution it is hoped that the public will be empowered to limit the mass of microplastic being sent from homes to waste water treatment. Specific recommendations include:
- The UK Government to lead a targeted public behaviour awareness communication campaign on the environmental impacts of plastic microfibre release from the laundry and wastewater treatment cycle.
- The UK Government to work with curriculum leads, academia, citizen science facilitators and on-the-ground educators to provide teachers and educational professionals with. researched and evidenced ‘Microplastic Action Packs’ for use in schools and in youth groups.
In addition to the focus on public intervention, a variety of interventions are suggested at the industry level. These recommendations focus on managing the loss of microplastic fibres from textiles during use and following disposal, controlling the loss of fibres from domestic and commercial laundry processes, and ensuring the effective management of any microplastic fibre waste arising as a result of these new measures. Specific recommendations include:
- The introduction of an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme for textiles from 2023.
- The introduction of legislation and standards which require microfibre filters to be fitted into all new domestic and commercial washing machines from 2025.
- Incentivise the establishment of recycling technology for microfibres with funding through Innovate UK to enable UK businesses to deliver viable microfibre recycling solutions at scale.
- Washing machine manufacturers and/or filter manufacturers are mandated to communicate how microfibre waste should be correctly recycled or disposed.
Finally, it is recommended that environmental quality standards be developed against which we might measure the success of the above measures, providing a benchmark for intervention by the Environment Agency or devolved counterparts. Specific recommendations include the creation of an Environmental Quality Standard for Plastics.
Report and resources
Following the presentation of the report, the APPG members will work to present the report’s recommendations to Parliament as well as in proposed meetings with DEFRA Ministers. Dr Welden will continue her work in the impact and reduction of plastic pollution and on the validation of novel filtration systems for microplastic capture.
Listen to Dr Natalie Welden discuss the impact of microplastics on our environment on the University of Glasgow Spotlight podcast.
About the School of Interdisciplinary Studies
The School of Interdisciplinary Studies, based at Dumfries Campus, has a strong portfolio in environmental science with undergraduate and postgraduate taught programmes in this field, including the new Environmental Risk Management MSc. From cutting edge research to outstanding learning and teaching, the School is at the forefront of addressing environmental concerns in society.