Sustainability Trends In The Water Industry: A Focus On Microplastics In Wastewater Treatment
By Chase Drossos and Nathalie Gilet
Sustainability is a growing concern both in American society and globally, changing customer demand across industries. It is a diverse subject as addressed in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (“SDG”), which have established a broad set of interconnecting dimensions that cover economic, social and environmental sustainability factors (see figure).
Because water is necessary for life, it is unsurprising that multiple, interconnected SDGs speak to the central responsibility that the water and wastewater industry holds in promoting sustainability:
- SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation
- SDG 9 – Innovation and Infrastructure
- SDG 14 – Life Below Water
One element of sustainability that particularly impacts the water industry is the increase in plastic pollution, driven by the global use of plastics and shortfalls in its collection, recycling and safe disposal. As highlighted on World Oceans Day, organized by the United Nations each year June 8th, this leads to a host of problems, including the infamous ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ and its negative impacts on marine and coastal biodiversity.
Plastic covers more than just obvious items such as bottles, bags, straws in the ocean. It also includes microplastics – particles suspended in water and measured in millimeters (typically defined as less than 5mm/0.2 inches). They can be invisible to the eye, and be ingested by marine life, animals and humans (either from the water or though the food chain), building up in their bodies. They originate from various sources, including the breakdown of larger plastic items that may end up in waterways and oceans due to mismanagement, but also directly from wastewater. Microplastic is found in a range of products including microbeads added to toothpaste or exfoliants and can even come from the use of washing machines due to increased use of synthetic fabrics which break down during the cycle. This is not a small phenomenon: studies by Orb Media found microplastics in 93% of bottled water samples, and 94% of tap water in the US.
The discovery of microplastics is recent and the effects of it on animals, fish and human health are still not well known. The World Health Organization launched a study in 2018 to research the impact of bioaccumulation of microplastics in the human body, but like other studies on the topic, it is still accumulating data.
Industry participants are also taking action, like SUEZ, which announced the launch of the first ever research program focused on microfiber pollution at World Oceans Day. They are also involved in research surrounding microplastics, including developing reliable and accurate measurement and treatment techniques.
Wastewater infrastructure today is not effective at filtering out microplastics from effluents, allowing it to flow into lakes, rivers and oceans. As the last possible point at which preventative measures can be taken before microplastics enter into the natural water cycle, wastewater facilities are key to addressing the problem.
Innovation in design, equipment and processes will all add to the solution in the future and will require collaboration across multiple industries and stakeholders.
In addition to changes in cosmetics and apparel, wastewater will need to gain insight into agriculture (both land and sea) to understand the effects of the use of biosolids as fertilizers and the impact on aquaculture of fish at risk of microplastic ingestion.
Unfortunately, there are not yet regulations around microplastic in the U.S., and many other jurisdictions, for water or wastewater treatment, although some effort has been made to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetic products (this will be fully effective in 2019). Without regulation, the UN SDGs are the best guidance available. However, an expedient, efficient and comprehensive adaptation of the industry is less likely.
On the other hand, the lack of regulation presents a great opportunity for companies to take a leadership role and be first to market with solutions.
Addressing microplastics today could look like the following:
Responsibility at the individual level – a conscious effort to self-educate on the issues and adopt best practices in consumption habits to stave off the anticipated increases in microplastics.
Responsibility at the business level – consideration for including microplastics within its sustainability risk profile tracked within a company’s enterprise risk management program with appropriate action plans based on risk appetite with considerations for fiduciary commitments, social responsibility and innovation/infrastructure development.
Solutions to issues like microplastics are a global effort with contributions from multiple stakeholders. This interconnectivity is a very important element of enhancing sustainability and can become a complex balance between profitability, confidentiality and social responsibility.
At Mazars, we are working hard to promote Business. For Good: we are passionate about sustainability and are striving to be a leader in the area, not just with our externally facing sustainability services, but also internally through proactive contributions to our communities and wider society.