Among the objects or materials we use to make our everyday life easier, plastics perhaps are the most dominating. The extent of plastic use brings us to the conclusion that we are now living in a world of plastic – a non-biodegradable element.
The abundance of plastic, amid the poor recycling facilities, has been considered a direct threat to living beings in the environment.
In Bangladesh, where waste management is still negligible, contamination of plastic in the air, water and soil continues unabated. Given a number of hypotheses suggesting that plastic pollution is hazardous to living organisms, green activists have long been sounding the alarm. But there is a need for measuring the extent of the plastic pollution.
Recently, a study has found that the River Ganges – with the combined flows of the rivers Brahmaputra and Meghna – could be responsible for up to three billion microplastic particles entering the Bay of Bengal every day.
The study represents the first investigation of microplastic abundance, characteristics and seasonal variation along the river.
Researchers from the University of Plymouth's International Marine Litter Research Unit, working with colleagues – from the Wildlife Institute of India, University of Dhaka, WildTeam, University of Exeter, National Geographic Society, and the Zoological Society of London – conducted the study during two expeditions in 2019.
Dr Gawsia W Chowdhury, associate professor of the Zoology Department, Dhaka University, who led the Bangladesh team during the expedition, told The Business Standard that plastics less than five millimetres in size were considered microplastics.
The samples were collected from May to June and October to December at different sites of the Ganges ranging from Harsil, Uttarakhand in India to Bhola in southern Bangladesh where it meets the Bay of Bengal.
According to a press release issued by the University of Plymouth, more than 90% of the microplastics found were fibres and, among them, 54% were rayon and 24% acrylic – both of which are commonly used in clothing.
When washing textiles, microplastic fibres are released and end up in the wastewater due to the lack of good filtration.
Professor Richard Thompson OBE, head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth and one of the study's co-authors, said in the press release that the findings can help identify the key sources and pathways of microplastics and hence inform management interventions.
"With this type of evidence, we can progress toward using plastics more responsibly to get the many benefits they can bring without unnecessary contamination of the environment," Professor Richard said.
A 2016 study by the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California Santa Barbara finds that washing a fleece jacket, for instance, releases up to 250,000 microplastic fibres into the wastewater.
Professor Ijaz Hossain, Dean of Engineering, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), said that textile mostly with synthetic fibres is the major source of microplastics.
Further, plastic beads are added to many toiletries products including face wash and toothpaste. Other than these, plastics dumped into the soil many years ago have now started to decompose.
Professor Ijaz added that controlling microplastic pollution is very difficult because the use of synthetic fibre in fabric has made clothes cheaper.
"First of all, toiletries products with plastic beads must be banned. We need to recycle or reuse trashed plastics. And we should think about more use of natural products like cotton and jute fibres in the textile industry," Ijaz said.