Water in the ‘Plastic Age’

By Antonio Gallizio and Joshua Burguete-Kirkman

Image by Peter Brockman and Darren Hamlin from Loudspring Human Nature Series

Plastics have been a pillar of economic development for years, facilitated by long range shipping, ubiquitous use of packaging, as well as consumer numbness to single use plastic containers. Over the past decade and a half, our global production of plastics in the millions of metric tons has increased from 200 to 335, which is almost 1 billion Empire State Buildings’ weight in plastic. As a result of this increased production, plastic waste is littered throughout our environment and has become a major (and long overdue) mainstream topic of discussion.

Micro plastics, smaller in diameter than a single hair have made their way into our food sources as well as into the water we use in our homes. The larger, more obvious examples of plastic pollution are easy to identify and thus ‘clean-up’. This plastic pollution on a micro scale is much more of a problem that needs addressing fast.

The reality is that we are living in a ‘Plastic Age’ where consumers can no longer avoid the damage that is being caused by years of negligent consumption. The question now remains: how are we going to deal with its repercussions?

The best solution would be to phase out plastic use and eventually place a ban on its production. However, this scenario is far from realistic and would not solve the problem of plastics in current circulation around the world. We cannot sit and hope for the best without taking steps to actively shield ourselves from the damage plastics are causing today, not only in the environment but also in our bodies.

The Facts

When talking about plastics, small percentages make a significant impact when taking into account the prevalence, and quantities of plastics being used daily. Research suggests that only approximately 0.02–0.3% of the micro plastic load in activated sludge would find its way into our water systems. But this equates to at least 256 trillion micro-plastic particles in the United States alone.

The activated sludge process is a wastewater treatment process for dealing with sewage and industrial wastewater using aeration and a biological floc.

At its lowest level, researchers have found a median concentration of 16 units of micro plastic per litre of water. This means that if the average shower runs through 65 litres of water, in the comfort of your daily shower you will encounter at least 1,040 units of micro plastics coming into contact with your skin. Other than the immediate harm of the plastics entering your body, what perhaps has not been immediately taken into consideration by the public is the secondary harm that these plastics can create. The hydrophobic (water-repellent) properties of micro plastics readily absorbs persistent organic pollutants at a level that is 1 million times higher than in ambient conditions.

Additionally, micro plastics provide an ideal surface for the colonization of bacteria. Micro-organisms, which could previously not live in our water systems adhere to the surface of micro plastics and act as an invasive species. The most prevalent types of bacteria living in our water systems through micro-plastics are:

  • Proteobacteria: include a wide variety of pathogens, such as Escherichia, Salmonella, Vibrio, Helicobacter, and many other notable genera.
  • Bacteroides: species also benefit their host by excluding potential pathogens from colonizing the gut, can survive in the abdominal cavity. Resistant to a wide variety of antibiotics.

This is disturbing to read, but it just scratches the surface of the long list of bacteria found living in our water through micro plastics. The effects of micro pollution are just now coming to light thanks to teams of dedicated scientists who are trying to understand what decades of environmental neglect are doing both to us individually and to the planet.

While public focus has shifted to climate change as the big issue of our generation, the ripple effects our consumption habits have created a vast array of secondary issues that we cannot ignore. Scientists are increasingly aware of the potential damage from abrupt and catastrophic climate change, we cannot say that we have the same level of certainty when it comes to micro plastics.

Adapting to change

Our portfolio company Sofi Filtration has done a great job of tackling this problem at the source by treating industrial waste water before it enters our water networks. However, unlike micro plastics, we cannot be everywhere. This is why for the past year we have been working with our engineers, along with other partners to come up with a feasible solution which can be installed in our own homes.

While the final solution is still in its prototype phase, our goal is to significantly reduce the price point and reliability with which people can feel safe about their water. Our ‘SofiPure’ system will filter the water through a non-consumable filter element that will remove micro plastics floating in your water, the filtration system is backed up by ultraviolet treatment that then disinfects the water, ensuring that there are no harmful bacteria running through your home.

Ville Hakala CEO of Sofi Filtration comments:

SofiPure is an easy-to-use filter, designed for further cleaning of municipal tap water. The prototype only needs 220–240V common electricity. It works with the municipal water network pressure and doesn’t need a pump of its own. The water flows first through the filter element, then through the UV sanitizer and further out to consumption. All particles bigger than the element pore size or the filter element surface — currently 5μm, for reference the thickness of a single human hair varies between 40–120μm.

While the solution is still pending final development, our goal is to provide a cheap, carefree solution that can consistently and reliable give consumers the security to fully utilize the water in their own home. This will mean people will have certainty that the water flowing out of the faucet is free from microplastics. It will even mean that people be put at ease from drinking their tap water. The amount of bottled water purchased and shipped around the world is one of the root causes of microplastics in the first place.