Got a cuppa in your hand right now? There's a good chance you might be drinking plastic as it's estimated that 83% of the world's tap water is contaminated by plastic fibres.
You have probably seen heart-breaking stories on Facebook about the dangers of plastic to marine wildlife. It doesn't stop with them and our oceans; plastic is so polluting and invasive that studies have found it in our tap water.
A study by Orb Media and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health tested tap water around the globe and found the following contamination levels:
- Worldwide: 83%
- USA: 94%
- Europe: 72%
- Jakarta, Indonesia: 76%
- New Delhi, India: 82%
- Lebanon, Beirut: 94%
- Kampala, Uganda: 81%
- Quito, Ecuador: 75%
Those are some startling figures; 83% of the world's tap water is contaminated with plastic.
The figures are worrying, so I wanted to do a bit of research into why drinking plastic is bad for us (aside from the ew factor), how it gets there, and if there's anything we can do about it. To my surprise, I found that this wasn't new news at all; we've been drinking plastic for years.
Before we get started I want make it clear that plastic pollution is a complex problem that extends beyond our drinking water. This blog post is to introduce and give an overview of the issues surrounding plastic in our tap water. If you want to learn more, I've included journal articles and news stories throughout the post. (Note that unless you are a university student or have subscriptions to journals you may not be able to access all the journal articles - that's why I'm including news stories where I can too.)
Why are we drinking plastic? / What is microplastic?
Before we can look at the problems associated with microplastics in our tap water and how we can stop it, we need to address what they are and how they end up in our glasses.
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic. While there is some debate over size, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration classify microplastics as being small than 5mm. This means microbeads are also considered microplastics.
There are two types of microplastic:
- Primary microplastics; these are plastics which have been manufactured to be microplastics. Think microbeands in facial scrubs and toothpaste, and clothing made from plastic.
- Secondary microplastics; plastic is not biodegradable, it breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, called secondary microplastics. This is why reducing our reliance on plastics is so important.
Fibres from our clothes are also a big contributor to the problem. A few examples of plastic-based fabrics include PVC, acrylic, polyester, and polycotton; you're probably wearing some of those now. The problem with these types of clothing is that microfibres can be released into the environment via your washing machine. A study by Browne et al., (2011) suggested that one garment could release more than 1,900 fibres per wash. Napper and Thompson (2016) estimated that on a typical 6kg load of washing acrylic garments could release over 700,000 fibres, polyester 496,030, and poly-cotton 137,951 fibres. All of that, from everyone's house, results in a lot of plastic fibres in our water. (Here's a link to a news story about these figures if you can't read the journal articles.)
So do how they get from our washing machine, sinks, and showers into our tap water? Waste water leaves our houses and travels to waste water treatment plants. After the water is treated, it is discharged BUT treatment does not remove microfibres. Currently, there is no filtration in our drinking water systems that will remove all plastic microfibres.
Due to the size of microfibres, they could also be transported by the wind and blown into our water supplies. Dan Morrison, the leader of the Orb Media investigation, told Sky news, "it could be that they are fibres from synthetic clothes and that the friction of daily life sends them into the air and they are then deposited into reservoirs, lakes and streams that feed cities as tap water."
Here we come across another issue, which is just as important. Plastic end that ends up in lakes and oceans is eaten by fish and other marine life, which introduces it into our food chain. Not only are we drinking plastic, we're eating plastic too.
What's the problem with drinking plastic?
That heading right there probably sparked a reaction in you that sounded something like, "why would anyone want to drink plastic?" Exactly. Water is something most of us associate with being pure, having bits of plastic floating around in it sounds anything but.
Currently, there are no published "safe" levels of plastic microfibres in drinking water. Unfortunately, research is a long way off fully understanding the impact these fibres have on humans. Though, we can probably all safely say that given the choice we would rather not drink plastic.
Plastics have been found to leach a number of toxic chemicals and carcinogens (this is another post for another day). One of the most talked about examples, which you may have heard of, is bisphenol-A (BPA). It is found in food containers, the linings of tin cans, water bottles, and more. The problem? It's been found to leach into food, and has been linked to a number of health issues, including increased blood pressure and an increased risk of cancer. Before you replace all your plastic with BPA free plastic be aware that BPA-free versions are not necessarily safer. Consider metal drinks and food containers and avoiding tinned food if you can.
In marine research, numerous studies have found that bacteria can colonise microplastics (Harrison et al., 2014). In addition to that, microplastics absorb and release chemicals into marine life (Koelmans, 2015). The obvious way this affects humans is that when we eat seafood, we also ingest those chemicals. This is called bioaccumulation, and means that those at the top of the food chain (humans, wolves, bears, tigers, sharks, etc.) have the most concentrated levels of toxins. Delicious.
I have spent some time trying to find out if there are any published studies on bacteria colonising on microplastics in our tap water but haven't found anything yet. I don't fully understand if that's because it's very unlikely to happen so is low priority or if it's a work in progress and hasn't been published yet. In theory, our tap water should be clean and free of bacteria. But what about parts of the world where it isn't as clean? Is it possible that microplastics are contributing to bacterial growth? I'm not sure, it's just a thought. If anyone has seen research about this or can weigh in, please do in the comments.
How can we stop drinking plastic?
Plastic pollution is a blight on our entire planet, not just our tap water. It's not about ensuring we can drink a glass of water or a cup of coffee that's free of plastic; this is about tidying up the mess we made of our planet (that isn't purely ours to fudge up).
It is easy to say "ban all plastic now" but that's more complex than trying to explain Game of Thrones to a friend whose never seen it. To clean up the mess we made we are going to have to compromise and make sacrifices. To live our lives the way we do currently, we require something like plastic; that's how it's become so darned intrusive. I am not a material scientist, so I'm not going to say "there are alternatives to every type of plastic we use." However, it's clear that looking into alternatives is useful.
One issue with the prevalence of plastic is to do with consumerism and capitalism. Capitalism does not lend itself well to caring about the environment. It's all about sell, sell, sell, and we buy, buy, buy. This is a whole other blog post for another time when I've learned a bit more about it. You get the gist though; we need a huge societal shift that puts pressure on companies and politicians to act responsibly. That sounds unlikely right? Governments aren't exactly renowned for listening to the people. If we want to quit drinking plastic and clear up the oceans, we all need to make changes and do our bit, however small or large.
This means putting pressure on companies we buy from and our politicians to spur change. If you are up for it, take time to write to companies you like and ask them to make a change. Write to your MP and / or local Green Party Councillor. Where I used to live, my local Green MP was always interested so you're likely to hear back positively from them.
Reducing our use of plastic
Since plastic doesn't biodegrade, one of the best things we can do is to significantly reduce our use of plastics. Yes, it is daunting when you first begin considering how to stop using plastic. Especially as pretty much everything seems to come wrapped up in it.
Your efforts are personal to you and your circumstances. Which means you don't have to go in straight at the deep end and quit plastic 100% right now. Any effort and progress you make is worth it. Here are a few things you can do review & reduce your use of plastic:
- Seriously take note of the plastic you're recycling (or can't recycle): what is the plastic from? Can you buy the same item without plastic? If it's not recyclable, consider writing to the company and asking them why they're using non-recyclable packaging. Is there any clearly unnecessary plastic in your recycling bin?
- Quit using one-use plastics, such as cutlery, straws, cups or plastic bags. Get yourself a water bottle, reusable mug, and metal / wooden cutlery for eating on the go.
- Switch to wooden toothbrushes.
- Only wash your clothes when they need to be washed. No one likes doing laundry anyway.
- Avoid using cosmetics with microbeads in them - if you like a particular product, try emailing the company and asking them to remove microbeads in favour of natural alternatives.
This is a topic I want to cover in more detail so keep an eye out for a more detailed guide on reducing our use of plastic.
Bottled or filtered water
Bottled water is not a solution to the problem. Firstly, the study by Orb found some microfibres in some samples of bottled water in the US. Secondly, bottled water comes in plastic bottles which perpetuates the problem.
You might consider getting a filtration system for your kitchen, though remember that as mentioned earlier there isn't a filtration system that will remove all microplastics and nanoparticles.
Fabric & clothing
More research needs to be carried out into microfibre shed from our clothing. Once we fully understand the parameters that cause more or less shedding, we can begin to manufacture clothing which sheds as little as possible, and washing machines that cause as little shedding as possible. Washing machine filters are also being developed to prevent microfibres ending up in the environment.
In terms of what you can do now, consider buying clothes made from entirely natural material.
As consumers we have power to encourage companies using non-recyclable packaging to change. If you come across plastic packaging which is non-recyclable, write to the company and ask them why they aren't using a recyclable option. Additionally, if you order online consider asking the seller to use non-plastic packaging. I have read about bloggers doing this and they've found that most of the time the sellers will try their hardest and avoid plastics.
Further reading and watching
- Going Zero Waste - this blog has been a bit of a bible for me since starting my zero waste journey in 2017. Kathryn has covered so many topics you'll have questions about and in a way that doesn't feel daunting. I am far from zero waste but I'm making progress and it feels doable when I read her advice.
- Plastic Pollution - SLO Active: a guide to plastic pollution in the ocean by ethical swimwear brand, SLO Active.
- A Plastic Ocean: not a happy watch, but I think documentaries like this can serve as excellent motivation to encourage us to make changes which aren't always easy because of how widespread plastic is in our lives.
- How to start living more ethically & sustainably: a bit of shameless self-promo here, but I've written a few blog posts now about how to start living more ethically & sustainably, including reducing our use of plastics.
You might have finished this article feeling a bit overwhelmed; that's how I felt when I started researching it. Drinking plastic sounds pretty horrible and unfortunately it isn't going to disappear from our water supply overnight. The most useful things you can do is educating yourself on reducing the amount of plastic you bring into your home and send out to the kerb, and writing to companies and politicians.
What are your thoughts on drinking plastic? (And did you enjoy this kind of post?)