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Foreign Affairs: We need policies that force real change

Humans and our environment are facing growing threats from water pollution, and not enough data on the impacts of microplastics, according to major new reports from the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

WHO's new report calls for more research into microplastics in drinking water and a crackdown on plastic pollution to benefit the environment and reduce human exposure.

"This latest report shows we need to better assess potential harm caused by microplastics,” said Javier Mateo-Sagasta, Senior Researcher on water quality with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). We need more data, not only on the potential health effects, but “for the environment, this needs urgent addressing," Mateo-Sagasta said in The Daily Mail.

Mateo-Sagasta and IWMI Senior Researcher Josiane Nikiema lead ongoing work in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reviewing solutions for microplastics, including their costs and effectiveness. Draft research will be presented within the coming months.

“Banning single-use plastics such as plastic bags and plastic bottles is a growing trend,” added Mateo-Sagasta in The Independent. “But more broadly we need to rethink how to design, produce, consume and dispose of the plastics that we’ll still use in the decades to come.” 

Research indicates that people who meet their recommended water intake through tap water ingest 4000 plastic particles annually, while those who drink only bottled water ingest much more – 90,000 particles. However, the WHO report calls out data limitations about the impacts on human health.

"To date, microplastics have not been a key target in the design of treatment systems to safeguard public and environmental health," says Nikiema. "It is good that the current findings – though limited – don’t seem to provide evidence that microplastics in drinking water harms human health. But as we know that without changing current practices, microplastics pollution will accentuate, we’d be wise to work towards policy-supported technical innovations to cut plastic and microplastic pollution in water.”

Once in freshwater, drinking water treatment is left as almost the only solution. IWMI is in process of gathering and assessing data on these challenges.

Some solutions may be too costly for many countries. Therefore any preventative measures in support of a crackdown on plastic pollution will need greater planning and resources.

This week, IWMI/WLE also responded to a new World Bank report that called water pollution an “invisible threat” to global goals. To address this crisis, Mateo-Sagasta said in Reuters, consumers may have to pressure corporations and government “to take the challenge seriously.”

The report contends that the impacts of water pollution are "wider, deeper, and more uncertain" than previously understood, and urgent action is needed. The World Bank points to pollution impacts accelerating due to, "intensification of agriculture, land use changes, more variable rainfall patterns due to climate change and growing industrialization due to countries’ development."

The two reports come in the wake of a major review of agricultural water pollution led by Mateo-Sagasta, along with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The book, More people, more food, worse water? a global review of water pollution from agriculture highlights the serious threat agricultural pollutants pose to the world’s water, and lays out various recommendations.

The review calls for major shifts in food production to move from destructive practices to those that better support both livelihoods and ecosystems. For example, lawmakers and administrators can use computer modelling to set pollution caps, and make individual landowners responsible for keeping pollution within that agreed limit.

IWMI, WLE and partners work on assessing water quality related to agriculture, microplastics and other challenges and uses, and will be releasing new findings and recommendations in the coming months.


IWMI/WLE’s Javier Mateo-Sagasta’s full comments on WHO microplastic report

The following are Mateo-Sagasta’s full comments on the World Health Organization microplastics report, which appeared in their entirety in Foreign Affairs:

“This latest report only adds to the growing body of evidence…. IWMI is working with the UN Environment Programme to assess what is the most cost-effective – cheapest but yet effective – combination of solutions to solve this challenge. 

“Such solutions must include addressing the issue of macro plastics first, which, once in the environment, degrade over time into smaller plastic particles and become microplastics. Banning single use plastics such as plastic bags and plastic bottles is a growing trend. But more broadly we need to rethink how to design, produce, consume and dispose of the plastics that we’ll still use in the decades to come. 

“Some microplastics are purposefully made to carry out certain functions, such as abrasives in toothpaste and skin cleaners or for industrial purposes. Here again, prevention, including banning or substituting, looks to be more cost-effective. Microplastics can also originate from the abrasion of large plastic objects during manufacturing use or maintenance such as the erosion of tyres when driving or the abrasion of synthetic textiles during washing. Here, solutions need to include new engineered materials and smart design, such as clothes that shed fewer fibres or washing machines equipped with filters. 

“All these efforts must be supported by legislation and on-the-ground policies that force real change. Once microplastics are in water systems – be it stormwater, wastewater, or ultimately rivers and lakes – one is left with advanced water treatment, such as micro or nanofiltration, as almost the only solution. And that may be too costly.”


For media coverage of IWMI/WLE’s response to the WHO and World Bank reports, see:

•    Independent

•    Daily Mail (print)

•    Foreign Affairs

•    World News

•    IOL

•    ReutersThomson-Reuters and Japan Times