University’s research into microplastic pollution is making waves

Wed, 24 Nov 2021 09:38:00 GMT

Academics from the University’s Department of Geography have been involved in ground-breaking research into microplastic pollution and wastewater management in UK rivers. Their findings are making a significant difference by influencing policy development in Westminster.

Three years ago, the researchers were the first to demonstrate high levels of microplastic contamination on the UK’s river beds. Subsequent investigations found that the poor management of untreated wastewater and raw sewage by water companies is the main source of microplastic pollution in the UK’s rivers. The new research, published earlier this year in Nature Sustainability, revealed that water companies themselves are the cause of this contamination, as they are releasing wastewater during periods of dry weather into river flows that are too sluggish to disperse microplastics downstream.

Since then, the University’s microplastics research has been submitted as evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee’s Inquiry into River Water Quality, formed part of a policy report from the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Microplastics, and cited twice in The House of Lords on September 13 during the debate on the Government’s flagship Environment Bill.

Baroness Altmann, said: "Research on sewerage from Professor Peter Hammond and Professor Jamie Woodward of The University of Manchester has found clear evidence that untreated sewage or wastewater are being routinely discharged outside the conditions allowed by the Environment Agency permits. It is vital that regulation of discharges of untreated sewage and wastewater are tightened, and these amendments would assist in this regard. The Government’s plan is to set targets on reducing pollution from wastewater, agriculture and so on, but setting targets is not an active reduction of this pollutant."

The Earl of Caithness, said: "Has he (The Rt Hon Lord Goldsmith) been briefed on the latest research from The University of Manchester, which has demonstrated a direct link between poor wastewater management and high levels of microplastic pollution in the United Kingdom? When we have these overflows, the microplastics go out into the water system—not only the rivers, but the sea, thus negating a whole lot of good that the Government have been trying to do in reducing microplastics. If this were not enough of a bad situation before, it is now really bad."

The work also featured on ITV Tonight’s ‘What’s in our Water?’- aired on Thursday 28 October and was covered by The Times on Saturday 21 November.

Following the recent findings and the work of various campaign groups, water companies have admitted that they could be releasing unpermitted sewage discharges into rivers and watercourses. This has since prompted the Environment Agency (EA) and Ofwat to launch a major investigation into wastewater treatment works across the UK.

Professor Jamie Woodward, who led the research, speaks of the impact so far: “This research is generating widespread impact and influencing policy development because it links two important environmental issues for the first time. The Government has made various pledges to address plastic and microplastic pollution. As the Environment Bill moved through Parliament, we saw a national outcry against the dumping of sewage and wastewater in our rivers and seas. Our research has shown that effective wastewater treatment by the water companies is key to tackling both problems.”