No matter how small they may be, plastic microbeads are still a dangerous form of waste contributing to the general pollution of the oceans and threatening wildlife. The biggest problem with the beads is precisely their size – since they are so tiny, they are very difficult to spot and get rid of from the waters, even in sewage plants whose filters are supposed to catch pollutants and stop them from entering the oceans. But according to a new report, it is also some sewage plants themselves that contribute to the plastic pollution – because of millions of microbeads that are used in them.

Sewage plants cause millions of plastic beads to spill into the seas around the UK, The Guardian reports. As was found by the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition (CPPC), dozens of the country’s wastewater treatment plants use small plastic pellets called Bio-Beads to filter chemical and organic contaminants from sewage. CPPC’s study found that a large number of those very pellets have been spilled in the past – and, unavoidably, they ended up polluting the environment.

Although just about 3.5mm wide, the Bio-Beads are no small threat. Claire Wallerstein, the author of the report, pointed out that once the beads are released, they are hard to spot and almost impossible to remove, but they can cause substantial harm to wildlife.

“We are learning more all the time about the environmental impact of consumer microplastics in wastewater such as laundry fibers, cosmetic microbeads and tire dust,” Wallerstein said. “However, it now seems that microplastics used in the wastewater plants’ own processes could also be contributing to the problem.”

The company South West Water stated that there was no evidence that the beads are being currently released into the waters from any of the company’s sites and that just nine of its 655 plants even use them. The company did accept that spills had occurred in the past but said that they had been cleaned up. The company welcomed the report – but called for more research.

According to CPPC, the Bio-Beads are used in at least 55 wastewater treatment plants in the UK. Wallerstein underlined that the beads have now reached not only the beaches in the country but also the coast of northern Europe – and that the scale of the problem needs to be researched more and an effort has to be made by water companies to answer it properly.

“We understand that Bio-Bead plants have been good at improving the quality of the effluent discharged by our wastewater plants – but this should not involve the risk of polluting our seas and waterways with microplastics, which could have long-term and far-reaching consequences,” she said.

Tiny pieces of plastic, like microbeads and Bio-Beads, are being ingested by marine wildlife, as they are mistaken for food, and can kill animals via digestive accumulation and release of toxins and pollutants. Microplastics also easily enter the food chain and make their way back to us – though seafood but also the majority of the world’s tap water. This is a very serious issue that desperately needs more attention if we hope to make any sort of progress ending the proliferation of plastic microbeads.

To learn how to minimize your plastic footprint, check out One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic campaign!

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