Animation highlights importance of microplastics research in driving water company investigations

A new animation has highlighted how The University of Manchester’s research on microplastic pollution in rivers has helped to drive investigations into the behaviour of water companies, and the roles of regulators in tacking illegal activity.

After being the first to demonstrate high levels of microplastic contamination on the UK’s river beds, researchers from the University’s Department of Geography discovered that water companies themselves are the cause of this contamination, releasing wastewater during periods of dry weather into river flows that are too sluggish to disperse microplastics downstream.

The presence of high concentrations of microplastics on the river beds can only be explained by the discharge of untreated wastewater into river flows that are too low to wash the microplastics downstream.

The video – which was created in collaboration with animation company We are Cognitive – explains how the research linked the sewage pollution scandal and the microplastic problem for the first time, when there has been widespread concern about the environmental performance of the water companies in England and the extent to which they are complying with their legal obligations.

Since the research was published, concerns about the effectiveness of the UK’s Environment Agency have also been raised, as only 14% of rivers in England are in good ecological health.

The latest development has seen the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) launch an investigation into the roles of Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Defra Secretary of State in the regulation of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in England.

“We have now opened enforcement cases against the majority of wastewater companies in England and Wales,” said David Black, Ofwat’s chief executive. “From what we have seen so far, the scale of the issue here is shocking – companies must resolve any problems at wastewater treatment works and do so quickly. Where they have breached their obligations, we will not hesitate to act.”

“We welcome this investigation by the Office for Environmental Protection,” said Professor Jamie Woodward. “Our work has shown that the sewage scandal and the microplastic problem are closely linked.”

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