Sustainability

World water day

An interview with Professor Francesco Regoli

On the 22nd March each year we celebrate water, the element synonymous with life. World Water Day (www.unwater.org/worldwaterday) was established by the United Nations in 1992. At the centre of countless debates to safeguard it, water is a resource that the textile industry seeks to protect with best practices such as SAVEtheWATER®, a Canepa’s patent. Born in CanepaEvolution research labs, this technology generates considerable savings in water, energy and CO2 as well as entirely eliminates toxic substances.
We’ve asked the opinion of an expert on water protection, Professor Francesco Regoli, Vice Director of the Department of Life and Environmental Sciences at the Polytechnic University of Marche and leading researcher in marine pollution and ecotoxicology. The main problem? Beside traditional pollutants, there is an emergent threat caused by the huge accumulation of plastics and microplastics in the oceans.

Professor Regoli, which is the amount of microplastics actually present in our seas?
The production of plastic has grown exponentially over the past 60 years, reaching some 300 million tonnes a year, with an average of at least 12 tonnes being released into the oceans annually. Visible plastics are just the tip of the iceberg since over 90% of the total particles are represented by “invisible” microplastics, smaller than 5 millimetres. Though media attention was attracted by oceanic accumulation gyres and so-called “plastic islands”, also the Mediterranean Sea appears seriously challenged. Recent studies highlighted that the amount of microplastics typically ranges from 250,000 to 1,700,000 particles per km2, with peaks of 9 million per km2 in some areas. Microplastics are ubiquitously distributed in the marine environment, being found from the sea surface level to abyssal sediments, along coastlines and beaches.

Why do we need to protect the sea and oceans from microplastics? Which is their impact on the environment and, consequently, on everyday life?
Life and marine ecosystems are certainly not immune to the effects of microplastics. These synthetic polymers can be ingested by organisms at the lowest trophic levels and transferred through food webs up to Mediterranean top predators. It is worthy to note that over 30% of commercial fish contain microplastics, with a frequency rising up to 100% in some species. Microplastics are not biologically inert, and once ingested by the organisms, they provoke a wide range of alterations at the molecular, immune and cellular levels.

Why is it important to involve textile companies in protecting the marine environment?
Textile fibres are particularly abundant in marine ecosystems. Polymers like polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), acrylic, polyamides and polyesters often represent the majority of microplastics found on beaches, water bodies and organisms. Considering that the global population will double over the next 40 years, it is clear that we need more effective strategies to reduce fibres and polymers of textile production being released into the environment. From this perspective, the involvement of textile companies will be fundamental to adopt new technologies limiting the use of these microplastics and replacing them with more eco-sustainable compounds.

Might the use of chitosan have benefits? What are they?
Replacing PVA with chitosan is certainly an excellent starting point. Chitosan is a natural polysaccharide derived from chitin, with numerous characteristics, including bactericidal and antimicrobial effectiveness, biocompatibility and various therapeutic properties. Chitosan is also used in some purification processes due to its capability to immobilise toxic substances such as heavy metals and oils contained in wastewaters and sewage. In this sense, the use of chitosan in textile production could significantly reduce the consumption and release of dangerous and persistent substances like PVA, have potential beneficial effects on purification of wastewater and, last but not least, raise public awareness on the importance of environmental microplastics.

What do you think is necessary in the immediate future?
More research is obviously needed to further characterize the presence of microplastics, textile polymers and their derivatives in the marine environment, their capability to absorb pollutants, transfer along the trophic web and onset of adverse effects in marine organisms. It is currently impossible to hypothesize the removal from oceans of the already released plastics, and it is therefore fundamental to reduce consumption and future inputs into the sea as soon as possible.

BIOGRAPHY OF FRANCESCO REGOLI
Francesco Regoli is one of the leading experts in the world on the risks of environmental pollutants and toxicological effects on marine organisms. His research has been used to monitor the impact of petrochemical sites and industries, off-shore platforms, oil spills and shipwrecks, as well as to monitor remote environments such as polar areas, and the risk of new emerging pollutants like pharmaceutical drugs and microplastics. On this topic, he collaborates with 16 international partners in an important European project, to study the ecotoxicological effects of microplastics (Ephemare).

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Published on 22 March 2016

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