Several studies demonstrate the presence of plastic in rivers and tributaries from inland sources. Furthermore, high levels of microplastic pollution have been recorded in lakes of different sizes even in remote locations. In any case, plastic waste from inland sources is about 80% of all plastic debris found in the environment. Most of the following information comes from research carried out mainly in marine and oceanic environments, since the knowledge relating to the abundance and dispersion of microplastics in Italian lakes is still small and fragmented. However, it is crucial to ask ourselves: “Where do these pollutants come from and how do they end up in the waterways”?
Here are some causes of the problem:
Cosmetics and make-up: cosmetics producers have been adding plastic microspheres in soaps, moisturisers, toothpaste and exfoliants for about thirty years. It’s easy to understand how these micro-particles reach the lakes and seas from our bathroom, considering it’s impossible for water treatment plants to filter them.
In Italy, since January 2020 microplastic in cosmetics, mainly in toothpastes and scrubs were banned but not in makeup products such as glitter. To know if a product contains microplastics, just carefully read the label. UNEP (United Nation Environmental Programme) drafted a list of ingredients related to micro plastic: Polyethylene (Pe), Polymethyl methacrylate (Pmma), Nylon, Polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), Polypropylene (Pp).
Fashion industry and synthetic fibers: the use of synthetic fibers has grown considerably in the domestic and industrial clothing industry, accounting for 61% of the global demand for fibers. The washing process, mostly by washing machine, releases fibers such as polyester, acrylic and polyamide and, once drained, they end up in the water systems. The Norwegian environment agency has found that every single garment, in every single wash, releases up to 1,900 synthetic fibers. For this reason, according to the same source, the emissions of microplastics in the waters derived from the washing of clothes exceeds that of cosmetics, making up to 35% of all microplastics in water.
Mobility and tyres: the external part of a tyre is made of synthetic polymers mixed with rubber and other additives. According a research by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a good number of microplastics comes from the friction of tyres with the asphalt while driving. The plastic materials released are transported to the environment by the wind and rain. Due to weathering, research explains, that road signs produced in thermoplastic release small particles.
Yachting and fishing: despite a 1988 international agreement prohibiting fishing vessels abandoning plastic nets and scraps at sea, almost 200 tons of waste were collected in the Adriatic in just six years. This was reported by Ispra (the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research) which carried out two European research projects, DeFishGear and MLrepair, in collaboration with the fishermen (224 vessels). The plastics found in water take on many forms, such as: bags, small spheres, packaging material, building linings, containers, polystyrene, tapes and fishing tools.