Our position on Microplastics
Microplastics in the environment are an issue of concern to us. Although the issue only began to receive media attention comparatively recently, we have been concerned for a long time about plastics and microplastics entering our raw water sources, sewerage systems and from there the aquatic environment.
Microplastics and Dŵr Cymru’s wastewater systems
Privatisation of the water industry in 1989 heralded a major investment in improvements to waste water discharges and in particular here in Wales to our coastal water discharges. Until that time, very few discharges from wastewater treatment works received any substantive treatment. Since then, we have spent over £1 billion on improvements to our coastal discharges alone, which has led to a transformation of bathing water quality in Wales (we currently have around a third of the UK’s Blue Flag beaches (45) despite only having 11% of the UK’s coastline) and significantly reduced the levels of plastics reaching the sea from our discharges.
While our wastewater treatment processes and screens catch most plastics of a certain size (current estimates are that 80% to 95% of plastic microfibers are retained within the treatment process) there is currently no agreed methodology for measuring microplastics (or plastics more generally) before and/or after treatment.
The water and sewerage industry is keen to improve its understanding of the occurrence and types of plastics in its processes and are commissioning research in this area. In 2017, we responded to a Defra and Welsh Government consultation on “Proposals to ban the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products in the UK and call for evidence on other sources of microplastics entering the marine environment”.
Microplastics and drinking water
Water companies spend billions of pounds each year to protect and enhance the environment and to make sure that they can provide resilient water and wastewater services now and in the future. As such, UK drinking water quality levels are among the best in the world.
We are constantly reviewing the risks to drinking water and ensuring that public water supply is of the highest quality. The risks posed by microplastics are small, but we continue working with stakeholders to assess impacts and, where necessary, take measures to reduce their presence.Microplastics are a wider global issue beyond the public water supply and the risks to public health need to be taken into context. Analytical methods need refining to enable scaling up to water industry level requirements and research is currently ongoing in this area.
Industry researchOn 1st February 2018, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a revised drinking water directive to improve the quality of drinking water and provide greater access and information to citizens. This includes a requirement to understand microplastics and the proposals can be found here.
The proposed World Health Organisation study, referred to in this link is a positive move towards contributing further evidence to the situation. The inquiry by the UK Government Environmental Audit Committee on the Environmental impact of microplastics is a useful summary of measures and options to control plastics in British waters:https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environmentalaudit-committee/inquiries/parliament-2015/environmental-impact-of-microplastics-15-16/
We have commenced our own research project into microplastics through the UK’s water industry research body, UKWIR. This will look at a wide range of plastics-related issues including the fate of plastics entering our sewers, plastics in biosolids and any potential drinking water matters.
We currently believe that the quantity of sewer derived plastics that make their way into our seas is likely to be a small fraction of the overall plastic load to the marine environment. This is somethingwe hope our research will be able to quantify and so enable us to put any further investments into context with the pollution caused by other, far greater sources of plastics in the aquatic environment.
Our Director of Environment leads the water sector’s work on improving our drainage systems, which is entitled “The 21st Century Drainage Programme”. This programme of work has so far delivered a number of useful tools and other evidence to help water companies in the UK plan future drainage and sewerage treatment investment better. The programme is very much based upon partnership working with a wide range of bodies and has the support of all the relevant regulators and governments in the UK, professional institutions, environmental NGOs et al.
As part of this we have also been undertaking a range of work to deal with the plastics which find their way into our sewers, focusing on facilitating solutions at source i.e. within households. By way of example, we are in the process of establishing, with the manufacturers of products such as wet wipes (which get flushed down peoples’ toilets), how such products should be labelled i.e. with a prominent ‘do not flush’ logo.
We are also working closely with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) on this issue, who are members of the 21st Century Drainage Programme. We have co-funded aspects of the campaigns that they have designed to make our customers more aware of the impacts of their decisions when disposing of plastics, and flushing them down the toilet in particular.
We are pleased to say that there is now a broad recognition that ultimately the only way to tackle this global problem is by elimination and controls at source. The decision by the UK’s Westminster and devolved Governments to ban plastic microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products is an important first step, as is the decision by the Scottish Government to ban the plastic element of cotton buds - something we have lobbied for, for a very long time.
These measures send out a very clear signal that Governments are actively looking for ways of reducing the plastics that escape into the aquatic environment and are willing to exercise their regulatory powers to achieve that goal.
We recognise the importance of controlling microplastics at source and we support efforts to change consumer behaviour to prevent plastics from being flushed into drainage systems or discarded to the environment. We are leading the water sectors work in this area as part of the 21st Century Drainage Programme.
The source, amount, fate, behaviour and impact of all micro and macro plastics is an important and growing area of research and we look forward to continuing to work with our customers and other key stakeholders to minimise the impact on drinking water, wastewater and the environment.
Microplastics Position Statement
Our position on Microplastics