Over recent months the issue of plastic pollution, particularly in our oceans, has come to the fore and is recognised as one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. Who can forget those appalling images of the sea of plastic covering large swathes of our oceans, or seeing marine life tangled, and strangled by plastic.
There is also the equally insidious issue of microplastic pollution, so the tiny particles of plastic that we cannot see, entering our rivers, and oceans. Research seems clear that these microplastic particles are entering the food chain (for example via shellfish who mistake them for food) with little evidence at this stage of the impacts on human health.
Research is being undertaken to identify where these microplastics are sited within oceans and rivers (and indeed on flood plains when rivers flood, taking water and microplastics onto land). But what can we do to stop them entering these water systems in the first place.
In order to make a real difference it will, in my view, take an alliance of legislation, change of habits and technology to make a real difference. In January of this year the UK Government banned the manufacture of cosmetics and personal care items containing plastic microbeads (with a ban on sales following on). The US implemented a similar ban in 2015. This is a good first step (though research on microplastic pollution in rivers carried out earlier this year by a team at the University of Manchester found a higher concentration of plastic microbeads than anticipated – suggesting that a significant element of such pollution may come from industrial use, which is not covered by the ban).
Changing our habits will also contribute to a reduction. A significant proportion of microplastics enter the water system through waste water in washing machines. Current water treatment filtration systems are unable to filter the pollutants out. The number of microplastics being emitted from every load of washing is believed to reduce if the load is fuller. So changing to less synthetic fabrics, and washing less regularly with a larger load of washing could help to reduce the pollutants making it into the water system.
Finally some interesting advances are being made in developing technologies which could help reduce pollution of this type, such as
Technological developments in this area seem to be coming from individuals or small groups interested in finding solutions to an ever increasing problem, rather than from any of the industries that play a part in them. It is hoped that those that could have a large scale economic and environmental impact (such as that by the team at Imperial College) will find the funding and private sector support to develop and test their technologies and bring them to market.
Widespread and serious problems can also provide opportunities for new businesses, as shown by the solutions set out above being developed and brought to market. Investors are always interested in backing commercially viable opportunities which have potentially large target markets. Forbury Investment Network and ForburyTECH, (associated companies/services of Clarkslegal LLP) are well-placed to support entrepreneurs in their growth and funding journeys, including market access and development, business planning, investor readiness and access to potential investors.