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Wet Wipes Contributing to Ocean Plastic Crisis, New Study Finds

22nd June 2020
Some 50 per cent of wipes labelled as “flushable” are not biodegradable and contain microplastics Some 50 per cent of wipes labelled as “flushable” are not biodegradable and contain microplastics

Increased use of wet wipes during the Covid-19 pandemic is already exacerbating the “plastic crisis” in oceans, an NUI Galway (NUIG) team says.

Some 50 per cent of wipes labelled as “flushable” are not biodegradable and contain microplastics which are harmful to the marine environment, a new study by researchers from NUIG’s Earth and Ocean Sciences states.

Lack of regulation for hygiene and sanitary products has resulted in “a failure to identify the plastic composition of these materials”, they note.

Lead researcher Dr Liam Morrison said the study showed that sediments near to a wastewater treatment plant in Galway are “consistently strewn with white microplastic fibres”, similar to commercially available consumer sanitary products, as in wet wipes and sanitary towels.

He notes that in most studies to date white fibres are “underestimated”, because of the commonly used filtration procedure to capture microplastic fibres.

These filters are usually white, making visual identification of microscopic white fibres against a white background difficult, he said – a significant detail, given the global growth of non-woven synthetic fibre products.

While most microplastics may be removed by the wastewater treatment process, combined sewage overflows associated with periods of heavy rainfall exacerbate the situation.

The sewage waste overflows containing wipes and sanitary towels have a negative impact on public health and the environment.

In a study, published in the international journal Water Research with NUIG PhD student Ana Mendes and Maynooth University graduate Oisín Ó Briain, Dr Morrison documents how three locations were studied in Galway, Mayo and Clare.

The researchers found 6083 microplastics fibres per kilogram of sediment near Galway city’s Mutton island, where there is a sewage treatment plant.

Two rural sites had much lower levels, at 1627 fibres in Bell Harbour, Co Clare, and 316 fibres in Bellacragher, Co Mayo.

The total number of white fibres was 5536, 788, and 265 per kilogram of sediment for Mutton Island, Bell harbour and Bellacragher respectively..

“Incredibly, 91% of microplastic fibres at Mutton Island are likely derived from wet wipes and sanitary towels,” the study notes.

“Covid-19 may have brought its own challenges for the oceans including the increased use of disinfectant wipes during the pandemic which potentially may end up as microplastic fibres in the sea,” Dr Morrison said.

“It is widely known that microplastics can act as vectors for contaminants including bacteria and viruses and are potentially harmful to public health and marine life,” he said.

Heavy rainfall in late 2017 would have contributed to high volumes of washed-up “sewage-derived” debris on a frequent basis at the intertidal zone near Mutton island, he said.

“This was significant in the context of climate change, where we are likely to see increased rainfall events and flooding.”

“There is a need for increased public awareness of microplastic pollution in the environment and human behaviour should shift away from the inapt disposal of sanitary products down the toilet and instead divert to alternative land-based waste management,” he said.

Funding for the study was provided by the Marine Institute.

Separately, in March, improper disposal of wet wipes could cause the coronavirus to spread via Ireland’s recreational waters, it was claimed, as Afloat reported here.

Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.

 

At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
  • The ocean provides the greatest amount of the world’s protein consumed by humans
  • Plastic affects 700 species in the oceans from plankton to whales.
  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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