End Plastics

Polluted Streams: The Life Cycle of Plastics in Water

From water bottles to shopping bags, our world relies on plastics to support our daily activities. Plastics have dominated the status quo for far too long, whether used for transporting goods or people buying packaged produce. Although they dictate our routines, we know little about the life cycle of plastics in water. Once we discard them, we have limited information on their degradation into our waterways and threat to humans. 

The Chemical Production of Plastics    

Polypropylene and Polyethylene, two main thermoplastics — compounds that are sculpted by heat — have chemical additives, like lead colorants and toxic lubricants, that leach into drinking water. This leaching, where moving water acquires the chemical composition of plastics, jeopardizes water quality standards. The accumulation of single-use plastics in our waterways poses a detrimental consequence as these chemical additives extend their lifespan. 

While single-use plastics account for 80% of marine pollution, this metric fails to recognize the invisible enemy: microplastics. 

From Plastic to a Microplastic

Microplastics are pieces of plastic measuring less than 5 millimeters, making them invisible to the naked eye. Environmental factors like wind, waterflow, and sunlight erode larger plastics into particulate-sized components, resulting in microplastics. This changes previous approaches for treating water, as fibers flow through existing infrastructure and compromise the water supply. 

Understanding the source, impact, and mitigation of microplastics is imperative, considering that  94% of sampled tap water in the United States were contaminated with synthetic fibers. These synthetic fibers come from everyday product wear, disposable packaging, and microbeads. Despite microbeads being banned in the United States in 2015, their prevalence in sampled water indicate a sustained environmental threat. 

Microplastics creating a Macro Problem

Microbeads and fibers pose an intricate challenge to the quality of drinking water. The average person ingests up to 5 grams of plastic per week, serving as the catalyst to prompt ecological assessments into the injection of microplastics through wastewater management. 

Municipal wastewater facilities fail to filter out microplastics, discharging 4 million microparticles per day into large bodies of water. Water treatment facilities are currently unequipped to filter out this influx of microplastics, allowing for bioaccumulation in the ecosystem. The consumption of microplastics through drinking water has detrimental impacts on human health, particularly on lung tissue lining and the respiratory system

Charting the Path Forward 

With more plastic in our waters, microplastics have more points of contact with humans, resulting in a greater impact on our wellbeing. With developing research into microplastics within the body, the US Environmental Protection Agency released a draft national plan to curb plastic pollution.  

Although the first stage in reducing microplastics in water, we must continue the momentum. EARTHDAY.ORG’s End Plastic Pollution campaign informs individuals about actions to reduce their plastic consumption, restore ecosystems, and conserve our planet. Let’s be part of the change as environmental stewards, striving for a plastic-free world.