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World Environment Day 2023: fighting plastic waste in water

World Environment Day is celebrated every June 5 since 1973 and this year marks its 50th anniversary, with a focus on one of the most serious issues we face: plastic pollution. “The scourge of plastic pollution is a visible threat that impacts every community around the world," said Jean-Luc Assi, Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development of Côte d’Ivoire, this year's host country.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), since 1950, approximately 9.2 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced, resulting in the generation of some 6.9 billion tonnes of primary plastic waste. Furthermore, more than three-quarters of this plastic waste was discarded and ended up in landfills, dumps, uncontrolled or poorly managed waste streams, or in the natural environment, including the oceans. Not to mention that the UN estimates that people consume more than 50,000 plastic particles each year, and even more if inhaled particles are considered.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of World Environment Day, with a focus on plastic pollution

Furthermore, according to UNEP's 2021 report Drowning in Plastics - Marine Litter and Plastic Waste, more than 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year worldwide, half of which are designed to be used only once.

Although these alarming figures show that plastic pollution is not an emerging problem, it is currently estimated that between 19 and 23 million tonnes of plastic end up in aquatic ecosystems annually, from lakes to rivers to seas, from land-based sources.

From pollution to solution

UNEP warns that decades of economic growth and a growing dependence on disposable plastics have resulted in a torrent of unmanaged waste being dumped into waterways and bodies of water, mainly affecting aquatic fauna and flora and causing millions of dollars in losses to the economies of countries. If we continue at the current rate and do not find solutions, it is estimated that the eleven million tonnes of plastic currently entering the ocean every year will triple in the next twenty years.

In an attempt to tackle plastic pollution, in 2018 the European Commission adopted a strategy aimed at improving plastic management in the EU, which calls for all plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2030, as well as reducing the consumption of single-use plastics and the use of microplastics.

The problem, which has become a global crisis requiring both immediate and sustained attention and action, is not easy to tackle, but it is not impossible either. We have the necessary knowledge, but we need the political will and urgent action from governments to address it, so that they amplify and implement effective targeted measures building on scientific advances and existing solutions.

Follow all actions on social media with the hashtag #BeatPlasticPollution

Last May, the UN outlined a roadmap to address global plastic pollution through the report Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy. It is about adopting a circular approach that prevents plastics from entering ecosystems, our bodies and the economy: "The way we produce, use and dispose of plastics is polluting ecosystems, creating risks for human health and destabilizing the climate" said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director of, during her presentation.

In this regard, the UN claims that a shift to a circular economy can reduce the volume of plastics reaching the oceans by more than 80 per cent by 2040; reduce virgin plastic production by 55 per cent; save governments US$70 billion by 2040; reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent; and create 700,000 additional jobs, mainly in the global south.

Circular economy: the path of the R's

According to the above-mentioned report, the solution lies in implementing a series of changes to transform the market towards circularity: reuse, recycle and reorient.

Although the public already has more or less internalized these three R's, the catalyst for change must be governments, which must develop laws to reduce the production of harmful and unnecessary plastics, encourage sustainable business practices and invest in better waste management infrastructures.

In this way, for example, it is possible to create a more favourable, attractive and compelling business model in favour of reusable products. On the other hand, the UN says that it is possible to reduce plastic pollution by an additional 20 per cent by 2040 if recycling becomes a more stable and profitable business, and again governments need to implement guidelines and practices to make this happen. Finally, many of the plastics we use can be replaced by alternative materials, so a reorientation in the manufacturing chains of certain products could lead to an additional 17 per cent decrease in plastic pollution.

The role of the water industry

In the water sector, the need to implement a circular approach is not about the generation of plastic waste per se, but focuses on improving the efficiency of water use in production processes and on the recovery of reclaimed water, organic matter and nutrients for new uses.

Our sector also plays an important role in preventing plastic waste from reaching watercourses. An example of this is TecnoConverting Engineering's TecnoGrabber© solution, a net system to retain solid waste that is installed at the outfall of sewers, which has prevented more than 472 tonnes of waste from ending up in rivers and seas since 2020.

The water sector must continue to work to promote the consumption of tap water instead of bottled water

Beyond the direct benefit of avoiding the discharge of waste into the environment, the solution serves as an example in outreach and environmental education campaigns to show citizens the huge amount of plastic waste that reaches water courses. Thus, in terms of education and awareness, the water sector can play a crucial role in educating and raising public awareness of the harmful effects of plastic pollution on aquatic ecosystems.

On the other hand, in terms of research, the water sector can invest in the development of innovative technologies to address plastic pollution, such as more efficient methods for the filtration and removal of microplastics, as well as research into biodegradable and compostable materials that can replace conventional plastic. This is the case of the FIBERCLEAN project, in which DAM Aguas participates, whose line of research is the development of new technologies related to the washing of garments and the purification of wastewater to eliminate or reduce microfibers, which are compatible with conventional systems. Another project in the water sector is INCOVER, in which Aqualia is involved, which develops innovative eco-technologies for the recovery of resources from wastewater, including bioplastics from algae, bacteria and yeast.

And, of course, the water sector must continue to work to provide citizens with drinking water of sufficient quality and quantity and to promote the consumption of tap water instead of bottled water, following the guidelines of the European strategy through the Drinking Water Directive.