Water Q & A - Microplastics in Wastewater

Microplastics, Nebraska Extension Acreage Insights May 2018. http://acreage.unl.edu/enews-May-2018
Microplastics photo is courtesy of plasticsinpackaging.com

Do you have questions about your private drinking water supply?  How about wellhead protection, including the management of your private sewage treatment system?  Send your questions using the Ask An Expert feature on this web site.  Questions will be addressed by Nebraska Extension Educator Meghan Sittler, Nebraska Extension Specialist Bruce Dvorak,  and/or  Nebraska Extension Educator Katie Pekarek. One question and answer will be featured each month in this section of the acreage web site.

Q: I recently read concerns about microplastics in municipal wastewater systems. Is that something I need to be concerned about in my own wastewater system?

Meghan: Microplastics are defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as “small plastic pieces less than five millimeters in length” (that’s about the size of a sesame seed).  Microplastics can occur from larger plastic pieces that have broken a part, from residues used in other plastic products or increasingly commonly as microbeads which are used in face scrubs, body washes or other personal care or household cleaning products.  Plastics, other than a small percentage made of biodegradable material, do not readily break down over time.

Municipal wastewater systems are concerned about the build-up of these microplastics within their infrastructure used to treat and discharge wastewater.  Similar concerns are valid for onsite wastewater systems. Depending on the size and amount of the microplastics as well as the components of your system, build up or blockage can occur, cause damage, and limit the functionality of your system. Additionally, the microplastics if included in the treated water discharged from your system, will enter the soil profile and can ultimately end up in groundwater or surface water resources.

A federal law, passed in 2015, bans the use of microbeads in personal care products by the end of 2019. However, it is a good idea to take stock of what products you may have in your home and consider purchasing microbead or microplastic free products to protect your system and the environment.

Meghan Sittler
Meghan Sittler
Extension Educator - Domestic Water & Wastewater
Meghan's education includes a master's degree in natural resources with minors in political science and environmental planning. She also has a graduate certification in public policy analysis, as well as undergraduate degrees in environmental studies and anthropology from UNL. Her graduate project was focused on the development of collaborative and adaptive management for the Missouri River.

Sittler began as coordinator of the Lower Platte River Corridor Alliance in December 2008. Prior to that, Sittler worked for the National Park Service as an archaeological technician, an environmental educator with the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department, an adviser and instructor with the UNL Environmental Studies program and School of Natural Resources and as a research and outreach specialist for the National Drought Mitigation Center. Meghan began her work as a Nebraska Extension Educator focussing on water in 2016.

Lancaster County Extension Office
444 Cherrycreek Rd
Lincoln NE 68528-1591
402-441-7180