Plastic contaminating sea salt, tap water – studies
Publish date: 12 September 2017
Issue Number: 524
Diary: Legalbrief Environmental
SA's focus on tackling marine waste is not misplaced, as two international studies reveal the alarming and increasing pervasiveness of plastic in the environment, writes Legalbrief. Sea salt around the world has been contaminated by plastic pollution, adding to experts’ fears that microplastics are becoming ubiquitous in the environment and finding their way into the food chain via the salt in our diets. According to a report in The Guardian, new studies have shown that tiny particles have been found in sea salt in the UK, France and Spain, as well as China and now the US. Researchers believe the majority of the contamination comes from microfibres and single-use plastics such as water bottles, items that comprise the majority of plastic waste. Up to 12.7m tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year, equivalent to dumping one garbage truck of plastic per minute into the world’s oceans, according to the UN. ‘Not only are plastics pervasive in our society in terms of daily use, but they are pervasive in the environment,’ said Sherri Mason, a professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, who led the latest research into plastic contamination in salt. Mason found Americans could be ingesting upwards of 660 particles of plastic each year, if they follow health officials’ advice to eat 2.3g of salt per day. However, most Americans could be ingesting far more, as health officials believe 90% of Americans eat too much salt. The health impact of ingesting plastic is not known.
And, people may be ingesting between 3 000 and 4 000 microparticles of plastic from tap water every year, said a study published last week, based on samples from 14 countries. A report in The Citizen notes that while the health risks are unknown, the researchers pointed to previous findings that plastic particles can absorb, and release, potentially harmful chemicals and bacteria. For the survey, 159 tap water samples were analysed of which ‘83% were found to contain plastic particles’, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the State University of New York wrote in a report. This was the first study to look at micro-plastics in drinking water, they added. Samples were collected in the first three months of the year in Kampala, Uganda; New Delhi, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; Beirut, Lebanon; Quito, Ecuador; several cities in the US and in seven European countries. ‘The results of this study serve … as an initial glimpse at the consequences of human plastic use (and) disposal rather than a comprehensive assessment of global plastic contamination,’ the team concluded. They called for more tests to gather more data about potential pollution sources and pathways, as well as the risks to human health.
Marine waste is becoming an increasingly pressing problem, world-renowned oceanographer and explorer, Dr Sylvia Earle said at the recent inaugural African Marine Waste Conference. According to a report on the Infrastructure News site, Mandy Naudé, CE of polyolefin packaging industry body Polyco said: ‘The conference, and Dr Earle’s presence there, were critical given that Africa is the world’s second most polluted continent on the planet and that waste accumulation is accelerating due to Africa’s rapidly rising population and urbanisation rates.’ ‘In SA, only 177 000 out of 540 000 tons of polyolefin plastic waste were recycled last year. As the majority of our landfills are close to capacity and only 5% of the population are actively recycling, the country and its surrounding oceans are in crisis,’ Naudé added. She lent her support to Earle’s statement: ‘We need to respect the oceans and take care of them as if our lives depended on it, because they do.’ Naudé concluded: ‘We fully agree with Dr Earle and hope to change mind sets and behaviours around recycling by creating an understanding of the value of used packaging in South Africa. We believe that through this, we can impact positively on responsible consumer behaviour to prevent land-based littering, and in this way help to save our seas.’
Marine ecology and pollution will be hot topics in the build-up to the annual International Coastal Clean-Up initiative in Port Elizabeth this weekend. A report in The Herald notes that Algoa Bay Hope Spot, the Wildlife and Environmental Society of SA (Wessa) and Nelson Mandela University’s (NMU) Institute for Coastal and Marine Research are hosting events and activities this week, highlighting plastic pollution and its impact on marine ecology. Wessa committee member Tim Douglas-Jones is quoted in the report as saying: ‘The general lack of knowledge (about marine pollution) and education of the dangers of plastic pollution is a problem.’ Algoa Bay Hope Spot chair and research fellow in the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research at NMU, Dr Lorien Pichegru, said coastal pollution was a major concern and needed urgent attention. ‘Last year, we collected about eight tons of rubbish around Port Elizabeth,’ she said.
The SA coastal clean-up forms part of a global effort. Wessa Tourism Blue Flag project – a three-year coastal tourism and youth development project implemented by Wessa in partnership with the National Department of Tourism – along with the Let’s Do It! Africa waste awareness campaign and other participating partners will run or support a total of 22 registered coastal clean-up events in SA this year, notes a report on the Talk of the Town site. The event is supported and sponsored by Plastics SA. To date, 113 countries and more than 16m people have joined the campaign to clean up illegal waste.