Wastewater Treatment Works (WwTW) as a source of microplastics in the aquatic environment

Municipal effluent discharged from wastewater treatment works (WwTW) is suspected to be a significant contributor of microplastics (MP) to the environment as many personal care products contain plastic microbeads. A secondary WwTW (population equivalent 650 000) was sampled for microplastics at different stages of the treatment process to ascertain at what stage in the treatment process the MP are being removed. The influent contained on average 15.70 (±5.23) MP·L–1. This was reduced to 0.25 (±0.04) MP·L–1 in the final effluent, a decrease of 98.41%. Despite this large reduction we calculate that this WwTW is releasing 65 million microplastics into the receiving water every day. A significant proportion of the microplastic accumulated in and was removed during the grease removal stage (19.67 (±4.51) MP/2.5 g), it was only in the grease that the much publicised microbeads were found. This study shows that despite the efficient removal rates of MP achieved by this modern treatment plant when dealing with such a large volume of effluent even a modest amount of microplastics being released per liter of effluent could result in significant amounts of microplastics entering the environment. This is the first study to describe in detail the fate of microplastics during the wastewater treatment process.

Fionn Murphy, Ciaran Ewins, Frederic Carbonnier and Brian Quinn, Environ. Sci. Technol., Article ASAP, May 18, 2016

The article

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