Role of Microplastics as Anthropogenic Pollutants of Global Ecosystems

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Plastic pollution has become a global threat to ecosystems worldwide, with microplastics now representing contaminants reported to occur in ambient air, fresh water, seawater, soils, fauna and people. Over time,

Plastic pollution has become a global threat to ecosystems worldwide, with microplastics now representing contaminants reported to occur in ambient air, fresh water, seawater, soils, fauna and people. Over time, larger macro-plastics are subject to weathering and fragmentation, resulting in smaller particles, termed ‘microplastics’ (measuring < 5 mm in diameter), which have been found to pollute virtually every marine and terrestrial ecosystem on the planet. This thesis explored the transfer of plastic pollutants from consumer products into the built water environment and ultimately into global aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

A literature review demonstrated that municipal sewage sludge produced by wastewater treatment plants around the world contains detectable quantities of microplastics. Application of sewage sludge on land was shown to represent a mechanism for transfer of microplastics from wastewater into terrestrial environments, with some countries reporting as high as 113 ± 57 microplastic particles per gram of dry sludge.

To address the notable shortcoming of inconsistent reporting practices for microplastic pollution, this thesis introduced a novel, online calculator that converts the number of plastic particles into the unambiguous metric of mass, thereby making global studies on microplastic pollution directly comparable.

This thesis concludes with an investigation of a previously unexplored and more personal source of plastic pollution, namely the disposal of single-use contact lenses and an assessment of the magnitude of this emerging source of environmental pollution. Using an online survey aimed at quantifying trends with the disposal of lenses in the US, it was discovered that 20 ± 0.8% of contact lens wearers flushed their used lenses down the drain, amounting to 44,000 ± 1,700 kg y-1 of lens dry mass discharged into US wastewater.

From the results it is concluded that conventional and medical microplastics represent a significant global source of pollution and a long-term threat to ecosystems around the world. Recommendations are provided on how to limit the entry of medical microplastics into the built water environment to limit damage to ecosystems worldwide.