The global plastic pollution problem is comprised of numerous plastic products. But according to a new study, wet wipes and sanitary products have been big contributors to the pollution in Irish Waters. This might be true in other territories.
The contribution of wet wipes and sanitary products in plastic pollution was unveiled by researchers at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway), a research and teaching institution. Their findings revealed that 50% of wet wipe brands tested and labeled flushable contained microplastic fibers. As such, the products had significantly contributed to accumulating microplastic fibers in Irish Waters. While the scope of the study was limited to the region, the same thing might be detected in other large bodies of water. The results were published in the journal Water Research.
The Convenience of Wet Wipes
Among hygiene products, wet wipes gained popularity because of portability and convenience. These products consist of moist, disposable towels initially used for wiping babies when changing diapers. Eventually, many adults worldwide carried wet wipes for hygienic purposes, especially after using the toilet. Typical baby wet wipes contain mild ingredients to avoid irritating baby skin, while the adult version often features antimicrobial components to eliminate the need for washing. After going to the toilet, the wipes can be used on the hands to clean or disinfect them.
Unfortunately, wet wipes are substantially more durable than conventional tissue paper. Tearing one can take some effort and time. So, when people improperly dispose of wet wipes, the products can clog plumbing easily. Although some brands created so-called flushable or septic-friendly variants, the wipes can still cause issues in the lower part of the plumbing, just like standard wet wipes. This is because the wipes can clog the 45-degree elbow of the plumbing.
Still, wet wipes remain in the market due to its many uses. People who cannot wash their hands with soap and water may use wipes. The products can help remove dirt, grime, and microbes from their hands before and after eating or using the toilet. The same products can be used to easily clean surfaces and objects without soap and water. But environmental experts cannot ignore the growing relevance of wet wipes in water pollution.
Wet Wipes and Sanitary Products Becoming Big Environmental Threats
At NUI Galway, a group of researchers studied the contribution of wet wipes and sanitary products in plastic pollution. They specifically studied Irish Waters and found that microplastic fibers could be traced back to these items. What made it worse was that the products were underestimated sources of those fibers. Also, many of the wet wipes they tested were flushable variants that contained microplastics. The items might be friendly to modern septic tanks but not to the environment.
"Our University has made sustainability a strategic priority, and for the world to address climate change, we have a duty to examine the behavior of individuals and corporations that can help our planet. This research highlights the need for us to adapt our behaviors and tackle the ubiquity of plastic in so many products," said Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, President of NUI Galway and who was not a part of the study.
Researchers studied three locations: Mutton Island, Bell Harbor, and Bellacragher. They collected samples of microplastics and white fibers from these areas to calculate the severity of contamination. The samples were obtained in four sampling occasions – September and December 2017, and March and June 2018. The microplastics per kilogram of sediment yielded totals of 6,083 in Mutton Island, 1,627 in Bell Harbor, and 316 in Bellacragher, while the white fibers per kilogram of sediment yielded totals of 5,536 in Mutton Island, 788 in Bell Harbor, and 265 in Bellacragher. Mutton Island had the greatest quantity of microplastics and white fibers, which showed the severity of plastic pollution.
Next, researchers examined the source of microplastics and white fibers they collected. Through different means, they were able to match collected samples to the origin. About 91% of microplastic fibers in Mutton Island were likely from wet wipes and sanitary towels. Some of the wet wipes were labeled flushable but the majority were not.
Surges in volumes of microplastic and white fibers were investigated as well. In Mutton Island, the total microplastics per kilogram of sediment was 553 in September 2017, 1,441 in December 2017, 479 in March 2018, and 569 in June 2018. The total white fibers per kilogram of sediment were 524 in September 2017, 1,323 in December 2017, 444 in March 2018, and 477 in June 2018. This showed that the month of December would reflect the increased waste volume of wet wipes and sanitary products, compared to any other month of the year.
In Bell Harbor, the microplastic totals per kilogram of sediment were 295 in September 2017, 248 in December 2017, 158 in March 2018, and 113 in June 2018. The white fiber totals were 102 in September 2017, 130 in December 2017, 95 in March 2018, and 66 in June 2018. In Bellacragher, the microplastic totals per kilogram of sediment were 41 in September 2017, 7 in December 2017, 32 in March 2018, and 77 in June 2018, while the white fiber totals were 23 in September 2017, zero in December 2017, 32 in March 2018, and 77 in June 2018. Based on those numbers, the month of September had the most volume of microplastic waste from wet wipes and sanitary products than any other month in both locations.
Furthermore, 50% of wipes tagged as flushable contained microplastics that represented a problem in product regulation. People might think that the items could not harm the environment since they are flushable. Being unaware of the truth, people unknowingly release microplastics and white fibers into the sewerage system by flushing those flushable wipes. On the other hand, 80% of wet wipes analyzed were non-flushable due to polymer composition.
According to Thames 21, a London-based organization dedicated to waterways, wet wipes were the number one plastic item found on the foreshore of London rivers between 2015 and 2017. Wet wipes accounted for 18% of plastic items, followed by food wrappers at 17%, cotton bud sticks at 13%, and plastic drinking bottles and tops at 10%. Other plastic items accounted for 18% of the total plastic waste.
Even if microplastics and white fibers sampled in this study are in Irish Waters, the materials can travel eventually to nearby territories. As people continue to improperly flush these products, more microplastic fibers are released into the sewer and natural bodies of water. The microplastic fibers will soon reach the seas and oceans, and add to the never-ending plastic pollution.