Challenges & Choices: What You Need to Know about Plastics in our Water

02 Apr 2020

It's not all about water bottles and coffee cups. In support of the Environment Agency's Challenges and Choices Consultation, we take a look at the other everyday items that contribute invisibly to plastic pollution.

We all know the evils of single use plastics by now. Everyone from organisations to activists to your local Rivers Trust is urging every single one of us to be more mindful about the plastic we use and how to dispose of it in a way that minimises the impact on our waterways and wildlife. Plastics are a huge hazard because they can take decades or even centuries to degrade - and even then they do not degrade fully - and, in the meantime, often end up polluting our waterways and threatening our wildlife. 

While switching to a reusable coffee cup or water bottle and using your bag for life at the supermarket is a great and important step in reducing your plastic use, there are hidden plastics in many other everyday items that we may not realise are there. Here's why you need to know about them, and how you can help us keep them out of our water in the Nene Valley:

What is Microplastic?

Microplastics are very small pieces of plastic that pollute the environment. Microplastics are not a specific kind of plastic, but rather any type of plastic fragment that is less than 5 mm in length.They also tend hide in plain sight. Unlike the more obvious plastic waste we recognise in bottles and bags and other types of packagings, there are items in your home that you may not have realised were there, and are travelling down your drain every day into our sewerage system. These might include;

  • Man-made fibres - Our choice of fabrics has an impact on our water too. While fabrics like acrylic and polyester are cheap and widely available, they shed plastic fibres into the water every time you wash them. Cottons, linens and other natural fibres are far more gentle on our waterways and wildlife.
  • Cosmetics and Household Products - Thankfully, microplastics in personal and household products are now largely recognised and many companies have either banned, or are phasing out their use. Products such as toothpaste, face and body scrubs, laundry detergents have all been known to contain 'microbeads' or synthetic exfoliants that are washed down the drain. You can avoid these by reading labels, researching brands, and mindfully choosing products with natural ingredients and exfoliants.
  • Sanitary Waste - While products such as wipes, nappies, tampons and pads are not classed as microplastics themselves, when we dispose of or flush these items, they begin to break down and shed particles of plastic into our water. The solution here lies in being mindful of what we flush down our toilets, and switching to natural, biodegradable, or reusable products, such as bamboo pads or cloth nappies. Remember that the only things that belong down your toilet are the 3 Ps; Pee, Poo, and Paper.

Plastic Soup

The result of too many miniscule particles of plastic slipping through into our rivers, waterways and oceans is a kind of 'Plastic Soup' that chokes and kills fish and other wildlife, stifles plant life, contaminates our drinking water, and generally upsets our ecosystems. It also makes it into our food chain via the fish that accidentally consume it each day. 

Prevention is key to solving this issue, as microplastics are practically impossible to detect when litter picking, so ridding our rivers of microplastics is trickier once the problem is established. It is also more expensive and energy intensive for water companies to tackle. 

What Can You Do?

  • Research brands, ingredients and products, and read the labels on cosmetics and household detergents and clothing items, including instructions on how best to dispose of them.
  • Choose brands and products made from gentle, natural ingredients that won't upset the balance of our waterways.
  • Where possible, switch to biodegradable wipes and pads, or consider investing in reusable items such as bamboo sanitary pads, menstrual cups, or cloth nappies, which also save you money in the long-term.
  • Get in touch with your local Rivers Trust or Catchment Partnership to learn about volunteering and litter picking activities in your area. Not only are you doing our rivers a favour, but you'll be getting outdoors and enjoying our wonderful landscape into the bargain!

Join the Conversation

The Environment Agency are seeking your views on the challenges our waters face and the choices and changes we all need to make to help tackle those challenges, including the impacts posed by plastic waste. We will be exploring more of these challenges on this blog over the coming weeks before the deadline of 24th April 2020.

By responding to this consultation you will be helping to shape the management of the water environment. The information gathered through this consultation will help us update the current river basin management plans, starting with the publication of draft plans in 2020. 

Give your input and be a part of the conversation here.