Microplastics research finds more than half of those released remain on land

Although plastics in the marine environment have received worldwide attention, it is estimated that more than half of microplastics released remain on land. This happens when wastewater sewage sludge is applied to soil, and when particulates are washed from road surfaces. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the microplastic problem; once released into the environment there are few, if any, practicable means by which these pollutants can be removed. As many microplastics are produced from the degradation of larger items, we should be looking further upstream for both pollution and its prevention.

Whilst the damage to the marine environment should not be overlooked, we must equally focus our attention to impacts that microplastics could have on freshwater and terrestrial environments. They have the potential to accumulate in these environments, impacting upon nature and the human food chain, as well as providing a platform for pathogens.

Microplastics can be any particles smaller than 5mm, including microscopic particles. They form from the weathering and breakdown of larger plastics, or are released intentionally or unintentionally in the form of manufactured beads, granules and fibres. Most microplastics have been found to arise from the washing of synthetic textiles and from the breakdown of plastic road markings and tyres from driving. Once released into the environment, they can then be transported via the wind, through surface waters and sewers, and by rivers.

At CIWEM, our new report has reviewed the latest evidence on microplastic removal processes at water and wastewater treatment plants. We found that wastewater treatment processes could reduce microplastics from 97-99%. Whilst this sounds promising, the large volumes of wastewater processed each day means that millions of microplastics are still being released back into the freshwater environment.

The high proportion of particles that are removed at wastewater treatment works become trapped in sewage sludge. These can then be transferred back into the environment when sewage sludge is spread on land to provide the nutrients needed for agriculture. EU legislation requires sludge to be treated to protect against health hazards, for example by lime stabilisation, anaerobic digestion, composting or thermal drying, but there is limited evidence of these being able to remove microplastics and no current specific regulation.

Data on the environmental and health impacts of microplastics on land are sparse. Our report calls for much greater research into the impacts associated with the application of sewage sludge containing microplastics to farmland.

The Government has recently published draft legislation that will ban the sale of products that include microbeads in ‘wash off’ personal care products by January, and ban their manufacture by June 2018. Whilst this is a welcome ‘upstream’ intervention, these are a minor contributor to the overall problem – it is estimated that these make up just 0.01 to 4.1% of plastics in the marine environment.

Every-day disposable items, such as plastic bottles and coffee cups, are particularly problematic. Only around half of the 35 million plastic bottles sold in Britain every day are currently collected for recycling. Moreover, around 7 million cardboard coffee cups are thrown away each day, many with a single use plastic lid. Only 1 in 400 cups are recycled, leaving over 6.98 million for landfill, or ending up in the environment.

To tackle this growing mountain of waste, our report calls for the Government to implement a new plastics strategy to improve product design and substitution, extend producer responsibility and support plastic bottle deposit return schemes.

Laura Grant, Senior Policy Adviser
CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management)

CIWEM’s report ‘Addicted to Plastic’ and a policy position statement ‘Microplastic pollution’ can be found at www.ciwem.org/waste-resources.

Ground breaking multi-sector approach to long term water resource planning

The Eastern region of England is home to some of the UK’s most beautiful natural sites and most fertile agricultural land. It is also home to three of the UK’s five fastest-growing cities; is the driest region in the UK and one of the most vulnerable to future climate change. So how do we make sure that we can meet the water needs of people and businesses in the east into the future, whilst also supporting a thriving environment? This challenging question is at the heart of the Water Resources East (WRE) initiative, led by Anglian Water, and is a key theme of Blueprint’s campaign on the Price Review 2019 (PR19).

WRE is an innovative multi-sector, collaborative planning approach to developing a long-term water resource strategy for the East.  Instead of the traditional approach, in which water companies look at water resource planning for their respective areas in isolation, WRE brings together all the relevant water companies, along with representatives from the agricultural, power and environmental sector, to co-create the long-term strategy using state of the art modelling technology, visualisation and decision support tools.

There are three key stages in the WRE technical process, which are summarised below. These stages are based on a framework known as Robust Decision Making (RDM) and is the first time this processes has been tested in the UK for water resources planning.

1. How might the current system perform in the future?

The implications of a range of possible but plausible future climate, growth and behavioural scenarios on the water industry, agriculture, power and the environment have been modelled using a powerful regional simulator. In total, over 350 unique future scenarios have been modelled. Each sector has agreed a small number of key metrics that are used to provide an indication of how their interests are impacted in the alternative futures modelled. For example, future performance against an environmental flow regime is one of the key metrics. Other metrics include the reliability of water for supply domestic customers, agriculture or energy. The simulator brings all these future scenarios and the performance metrics together at a regional scale to provide a baseline vulnerability assessment – an assessment of what might the future look like without any investment to improve water resilience.  For non-water company stakeholders, the baseline vulnerability assessment is particularly interesting, as it shines a light on how their particular interests may be affected in the future and highlights the need for action.

2. What interventions could we take to be more resilient in the future?

A range of possible interventions are incorporated into the simulator, such as new reservoirs, water transfers or increased demand management. The simulator then seeks out and identifies portfolios of interventions that perform best into the future against one or more of the metrics. Visualisation tools are used by participants to identify the portfolios that work best for their sector, but also to see what works best for others. At this point discussion around any ‘trade-offs’ can take place to find a small number of preferred portfolios that work best across multiple interests.

Screen shot of one of the visualisation tools used in WRE showing portfolio performance against a selection of metrics.

3. What is the long-term Strategy?

The short list of preferred portfolios is then taken forward to be stress tested in more detail under the future scenarios, to help identify which portfolios perform best in a range of futures and develop the long-term WRE Strategy. The sequencing of interventions is considered and a non-statutory Strategic Environmental Assessment is prepared to inform the selection of the preferred WRE Strategy.

The WRE initiative is currently at Stage two. A two-day workshop in early May started to reveal a number of portfolios that looked promising across multiple sectors, and these will be explored further in a workshop in June. The aim is to have the long-term WRE Strategy developed by autumn 2017, so that it can inform Water Resource Management Plans and Business Plans being prepared by the water industry as part of PR19.

The approach being taken by WRE is ground breaking both in terms of the technology, such as the simulator model and visualisation tools, but perhaps more importantly in the way that it actively involves participation from a range of interested sectors in co-creating the long-term Strategy. The process is raising the understanding of the challenges ahead across sectors on water availability in the east, and is fostering a genuine will to collaborate on solutions that can deliver multi-sector benefits.

Hannah Stanley-Jones (Anglian Water) and Nathan Richardson (RSPB).

Sustainable Shores – Are we doing enough to address habitat loss at our coast?

Across the UK, we have lost significant amounts of coastal habitat to development and coastal squeeze. So, are we doing enough to address this loss? A simple question you might think, but one that is vexing the RSPB and other environmental NGOs.

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment[i] estimated that the overall extent of coastal habitat in the UK has reduced by 16% since 1945. The figures are worse in England where we have lost 20% or around 13,000ha, excluding mudflat[ii].

The same report projects further coastal margin habitats loss, just due to coastal squeeze, at around 8% by 2060. Much of this habitat will be lost from our most important wildlife sites. The Environment Agency estimates that 1,200 hectares of internationally protected (i.e. SAC/SPA) intertidal habitat in England will be lost due to coastal squeeze by 2025, whilst in Wales the figure is 260 hectares[iii].

So what are we losing? As well as their biodiversity value our coastal habitats provide us with flood risk benefits, recreational assets, carbon sinks and crucial fish spawning areas.

Whilst the threat is frightening, we do have the solutions in our gift to address it if we chose to implement them. We have seen more than 70 managed realignment and regulated tidal exchange projects in the UK over the last 25 years[iv]. Projects such as Medmerry and Wallasea have redefined the art of the possible. In all around 2,500ha of coastal habitat has been created in the UK, including around 1,600ha of intertidal habitat. However, around half of this intertidal habitat was compensating for projects and plans that were causing habitat loss, leaving around 800ha of new intertidal habitat in 25 years. This compares to the 13,000ha reported lost in England alone since 1945. We certainly have the skills but do we have the will?

If we look at it another way, just implementing our current Shoreline Management Plans in England means realigning 10% of the coast by 2030 (15% by 2060) and would create around 6200ha of coastal habitat. This would more than offset the habitat losses that are predicted in the same time period. It would also save us between £180m and £300m in the long term when compared to maintaining the current hard defences. However, since 1990 we have only realigned around 1.5% of the coast[ii].. At this rate it is going to take us nearly 175 years to have achieved what we planned to do by 2030.

So, unfortunately I suspect the answer to my opening question is: NO, we aren’t doing enough. We aren’t keeping pace with the rate of habitat loss and we aren’t adapting our coastline fast enough to meet the challenges of the future.

What are we going to do about it?  Well, this will be one of the questions we will be looking to answer in a new project I am leading at the RSPB called Sustainable Shores, which will report in the Autumn. If you want to find out more get in touch at nathan.richardson@rspb.org.uk

The managed realignment project at Medmerry is the biggest on the open-coast in Europe (Image: Environment Agency)

Dr Nathan Richardson
Senior Policy Officer, RSPB

[i] UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011)

[ii] Managing the Land in a Changing Climate. Adaptation Sub-Committee Progress Report 2013.

[iii] UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Evidence Report (2016)

[iv] ABPmer (2017)  UK Marine Habitat Creation Schemes. ABPmer White Paper No.R.2781.

What the EU referendum means for water

The water environment and everything it means for us needs to be protected in an era of change post the EU referendum results. Our wetland wildlife, our drinking water, our enjoyment of walking by a river full of life, and the food and farming industries all rely on a healthy water environment.

This is in no way secure. Our major legislation supporting clean water is driven by being a member of the European Union, from the Water Framework Directive and the Urban Waste Water Directive to the Common Agricultural Policy which supports good land management. We need to ensure that the Government does not weaken the protections that give us clean water and that the amount of water we take from the environment is sustainable. This will not be easy. There are so many demands on our water environment from the energy industry, agriculture, not to mention climate change and population growth; the health of our waters is bound to be more vulnerable as everyone clamours to be heard. We need to be the voice for water, for nature.

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Saving Water through WaterSocial

How fortunate are we to have the ease of turning on a tap to have water arrive in an instant? As our population increases so does our demand for water. When more water is abstracted from the system for drinking, bathing, and other activities it can lead to harmful environmental impacts. These range from degraded rivers and ecosystems to increased charges for sewage treatment. For example, in 2015 only 17% of UK river waterbodies achieved the target of ‘good status’ set by the Water Framework Directive. It is clear that there is an urgent need to improve our freshwater environment. On top of saving more water, one solution here is to use the WaterSocial, a social media platform.

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Confusion reigns over water quality figures

Our rivers are among our most iconic landscapes, but in England, at least, all is not well. Rob Cunningham, head of Water Policy at the RSPB looks at the numbers and they don’t look good … and you have a chance to add your voice.

How healthy are English rivers? Sounds like a question we should be able to answer given thousands of monitoring results the Environment Agency gather across the river network annually. But the recent announcement that just 17% of river waterbodies are meeting the Good Status target set by the Water Framework Directive (WFD)  leaves me more confused than enlightened. After all just 6 years ago we were told by the EA that 22% of English rivers were at Good and that this would improve to 32% by 2015 – have things gone so terribly wrongs since then?

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Natural drainage: a whole lot more than drains

I don’t know about you but I seem to get caught up a bit in my life, waking up, breakfast, work, exercise, cooking, washing up, ticking things off the “to do” list, going to sleep. Little things start to irk me and to stress me out: I shout at my computer, I want things to happen faster and I swear when I spill my tea. That’s when I realise, this weekend I have to get out and go for a walk. When I climb a grassy hill, walk along the river or a coast path or the canal I feel myself take a deep breath of air and I start to relax. I forget about all the silly things that were getting my goat and I just enjoy myself and remember that this is it, there is so much more to life than my every day, there is so much more than “me”.

I truly believe that this ability for natural landscapes to make us feel better is one of the hugely important values of urban green space for those people who can’t get as out into the countryside, as I am lucky enough to be able to do. The opportunity for natural flood management in the urban environment to provide such spaces is massive. We could put natural drainage systems into all new developments and there are many opportunities for retrofitting such as into schools and onto hotel roofs and walls. Not only do we provide a solution to our overloaded sewage drainage and reduce the risk of surface water flooding but we provide people with a connection to nature that has been shown to improve health and well-being. Having natural drainage systems in schools can provide a valuable space for outdoor learning and learning about natural processes such as the water cycle. Even schools with only limited outdoor space can accommodate these systems (see http://sudsforschools.wwt.org.uk/).

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Hello and welcome

Hello and welcome to the Blueprint for Water’s new website

At Blueprint our vision is:

Water matters: it is integral to our lives for drinking, health and recreation, as well as integral to the lives of all plants and animals. All waters and wetlands, from our ponds and rivers to our seas should be alive with the splashing, buzzing and croaking of flourishing wildlife. By working together and managing our water more effectively, we can ensure a future full of wildlife-rich places that everyone can explore and enjoy.

This will be a challenge, today less than a quarter of England’s water is healthy and our salmon, water vole, freshwater crayfish and eel populations are just some of our native species in decline and under threat.

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