Plastic Free July: Tips for reducing plastic pollution from your clothing and textiles

Plastic Free July 2024

Plastic Free July is an awareness campaign coordinated by the Plastic Free Foundation which began in 2011 and is geared toward encouraging individuals to reduce plastic waste and pollution through small lifestyle changes, especially through the reduction of single-use plastic. To celebrate Plastic Free July in 2023 on this blog, we focused on a few ‘atypical tips’ for reducing plastic pollution by highlighting some common, non-intuitive sources of plastic. This year, we’ll similarly focus on a source of plastic pollution that you may find surprising—clothing and other textiles.

As always, please remember that ISTC does not endorse, either explicitly or implicitly, any particular manufacturer, vendor, product, or service. Information about specific products, manufacturers or vendors is provided for reference only.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), about 60% of material made into clothing is plastic, including polyester, acrylic, and nylon textiles. Every time we wash these clothes, they shed plastic microfibers, a form of microplastics, which are up to five millimeters in size. Think of emptying the lint trap of your dryer; clothes shed material in the washing machine as well but are released along with the wastewater. While water treatment plants can remove a majority of these fibers from water, plants vary in their removal efficacy and none can remove 100% of these tiny particles. Some make their way into the environment when the treated water is discharged to lakes or rivers, or via the collected sludge (aka “biosolids”) from treatment plants, which is sometimes applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer.

Textiles are also increasingly being treated as disposable goods. “Fast fashion” is defined as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” This typically means individual articles of clothing are of low quality and likely to wear out quickly, at which point they’re discarded (too often in landfills) and replaced by new inexpensive, less durable items. According to the Illinois Materials Management Advisory Committee Report to the General Assembly (2021), 279,188 tons of clothing were disposed of in Illinois landfills in 2018, along with 235,523 tons of “other textiles.” In that same year, the U.S. EPA reported that nearly 17 million tons of textile waste were generated nationwide, with 11.3 million of those tons going to landfills (3.2 million tons were combusted). The recycling rate for all textiles was 14.7 percent in 2018, with 2.5 million tons recycled. So although clothing and other textiles aren’t “single-use” plastics, they are examples of materials that are not necessarily built to last that contribute to the release of plastics into the environment.

So what can you do to reduce plastic pollution from textiles?

Resist fast fashion and reduce consumption. In general, reduce the amount of clothing you buy. Think about what items you really need and will wear repeatedly, and avoid accumulating more clothes than you can reasonably use. Choose versatile separates that can be paired with multiple other items in your wardrobe to create different outfits. When you must buy something, look for items that are durable and well-made. This will often (but not always!) mean that you’ll invest more money up-front. However, if you need to replace items less frequently, that investment will pay off in the long run. Check out Good on You’s guide to choosing clothes that last, and The Luxe Strategist’s detailed ‘An Actually Practical Guide to Shopping for High-Quality Clothes’.

Second-hand first.  When you do buy clothing, consider used but “new to you” items. Participate in clothing swaps with friends or community members. Shop at thrift stores, consignment shops, or online resellers in search of those interchangeable and durable pieces mentioned above. The Luxe Strategist guide referenced above points out that truly vintage (pre-1970s) clothes are “built like tanks, and the differences between those and lower-quality clothes from today are unmistakable.” Extending the useful lives of textiles that have already been manufactured is important to reduce the demand for new items, keep existing clothing out of landfills, and conserve the embodied resources (e.g. energy, water, labor, etc.) that went into manufacturing those items. Fewer newly produced clothes mean fewer new plastics required to meet consumer demands.

Choose responsibly produced new items, made from non-synthetic fibers whenever possible. This may sound relatively simple, but if you’re concerned about sustainability in general, it’s important to acknowledge that a lot of resources and potentially harmful chemicals go into the production and harvesting of natural, non-synthetic fibers (e.g., cotton, silk, wool, etc.) as well as their processing, dyeing, and distribution. So keeping sourcing and production in mind will always be advisable. If you’re not able to find the particular item you need made from natural fibers, then the next best option would be items resulting from textile-to-textile recycling, as a way to increase demand for responsible management of textiles at the end of their first life. Even better if you find items made from recycled natural fibers! It can feel overwhelming to try to navigate the various factors involved in sustainable production, so check out this recent article from CNN Underscored highlighting 15 sustainable clothing brands, as well as Good On You’s explanation of the relative impacts of various clothing materials, including plant-based, animal-derived, and synthetics. In general, certified B Corporations meet standards for environmental and social impacts, so clothing and textile brands with this certification might be deemed preferable.

Consider your laundry routine and repair your textiles. Fewer chores are a good thing–for you and the environment! One of the simplest steps you can take to reduce plastic pollution is to launder your clothing and textiles less frequently. Fewer trips through the wash cycle mean fewer plastic particles sent down the drain. Plus, you’ll save water and electricity and your clothes won’t wear out as quickly! Unless you’ve sweat profusely, been exposed to harsh elements, or participated in a particularly dirty job like digging or painting, your outer garments might be able to be aired out and worn at least one additional time before getting tossed in the laundry basket. Check out Real Simple’s guide on how frequently to wash various types of clothing. When you do laundry, use cold water unless you have deeply soiled items. Cold water is effective at getting laundry clean, and research has shown that colder wash cycles result in decreased microfiber generation.

Returning to the notion of cleaning your lint trap, air-drying clothes is another option for reducing wear that leads to microfiber shedding.

Mending rips, patching worn spots, replacing buttons, and otherwise altering clothing are great ways to keep your textiles in service for longer, which can reduce the need for new synthetics and keep plastics out of landfills and the environment. If you’re not skilled with a needle, support the local economy by taking your items to a tailoring and alteration shop. If you’re willing to do it yourself but lack experience, an abundance of online guides and videos can help you learn basic techniques. For example, see “Simple Ways To Mend Your Clothing Without A Sewing Machine.”

Trap or filter microfibers released in your washing machine, and consider the washer itself. There are ways to minimize the plastic pollution drained from your washer. First, if you’re in the market for a new washing machine, consider a front-loader. According to Energy Star, not only are these machines more resource efficient, but they’re gentler on clothes, resulting in less microplastic shedding.

Low-tech in-wash plastic pollution reduction options include using a device to collect loose fibers in the wash water, like the Cora Ball, or washing your synthetic fabrics inside garment bags, so you can manually remove collected fibers and put them in the trash. High-tech options include external filters that can be attached to your existing washing machine, or the emerging technology of washing machines with a built-in filter. France became the first country to regulate plastic microfiber pollution from laundry by adopting a law that will require new washers to have microfiber filters by 2025, so such machines will hopefully become increasingly commonplace.

When they can no longer be used, recycle your textiles. When your clothing and other textiles are no longer useful, don’t send them to the landfill! Check with your local government for area textile recycling options or consult the Illinois Recycling Foundation directory. If options aren’t available in your area, consider a mail-in take-back program.

Learn more

Study tracks emerging contaminants from landfill to treatment plant to application

Aerial photo of a wastewater treatment plant.
Photo credit: Amine KM/Pexels

Treatment plants can effectively remove microplastics and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from wastewater before they’re discharged to lakes and rivers, but large amounts of contaminants end up in solid waste, called biosolids, often used on agricultural fields as soil nutrients. By land applying this material, these contaminants then are re-released back into the environment.  

In a recent study published in an Illinois Sustainable Technology Center report, John Scott, analytical chemist at ISTC in the University of Illinois, studied the fate of microplastics and PFAS as they moved from landfill leachate, or water that filters though the mound of trash, to wastewater treatment plants and beyond. As health concerns about PFAS in water continue to grow, Scott predicts that state and federal regulatory agencies will set rules limiting these contaminants in water.

“I expect regulations concerning PFAS will be coming soon, but the big question is that nobody knows where to set the limits because the toxicity of PFAS hasn’t been established yet,” Scott said.   

To date, wastewater treatment plants are not required to monitor for PFAS and microplastics, so studies on these contaminants provide a better understanding of their major sources and how they can end up in the environment.

Eighty percent of plastics are destined for landfills. Among the castaways are food packaging, furniture, clothing, and other textiles that shed microplastics and PFAS contaminants. Scott noted that while all samples contained both microplastics and PFAS, PFAS concentrations in landfill leachate were found to be much greater than in wastewater influent.  

After wastewater treatment, the highest levels of microplastics and PFAS were in the biosolids, of which 50% are applied back to the land. If farmers stop using biosolids in fields due to regulatory and liability issues, the only option is to send them to landfills where the cycle from landfill to wastewater treatment plant will continue.

“Once in landfills, the stuff moves into the leachate, which is headed back to the wastewater treatment plant,” Scott said. “We’re just moving them from one environmental compartment to the next without addressing the problem. We never get rid of them; we’re just shifting them back and forth.”

To manage this problem, which is increasing over time because plastics and PFAS take so long to break down, consumers have some responsibility, he said.

“People have the perception that when you throw something away and it goes to a landfill, then it’s gone forever, when it’s not,” Scott said. “A landfill is just a holding place, and actually, the contaminants will end up fugitive in our environment.”

If the use of PFAS is regulated, PFAS in raw sewage will decrease, but contamination in landfill leachate will continue to rise, Scott said. Similarly, as plastics are added to landfills, they breakdown to smaller sizes, increasing contamination levels in leachate. Over time, landfills will become an even more significant sources of these contaminants, as well as many others. 

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Media Contact: John Scott, 217-333-8407, zhewang@illinois.edu

Holiday gifts with sustainability in mind

Alma mater and block-I shaped cookies on a plate among other cookies
Illinois-themed Alma Mater and Block I holiday cookies. Credit: UI Public Affairs, Fred Zwicky.

Whichever winter holiday(s) you observe, odds are ‘tis the season for gift giving. Even if you don’t observe any of the major winter holidays, you’ll surely think about gifts at some point in the near future to celebrate a special occasion. If you’d like to align your gifts with sustainable values, the following ideas and resources might be helpful. Please note that links and companies mentioned in this post are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as endorsements by ISTC, the Prairie Research Institute, or the University of Illinois.

Give an Experience

Many of us are fortunate enough to have plenty of “stuff” already, and if that’s the case for your intended recipient, consider an alternative to giving them more material goods. Experiences can often be more meaningful and personalized than physical gifts and presenting them can be an opportunity to start a conversation about consumption and its impacts on resource use, though one should not equate gifting experiences with avoiding consumption. Experiences still involve the use of material goods and consumption of resources; e.g., cooking someone their favorite dinner still requires the use of cookware, energy, and ingredients that themselves require natural resources to grow, raise, or manufacture. However, some gifted experiences may use items or resources that you or your recipient already own or would consume regardless of the special occasion. Continuing the previous example, you’re not likely to buy new pots or appliances to cook dinner, and since your recipient would need to eat anyway, there would always be impacts associated with the ingredients for the meal. Of course, other experiences may involve situations outside normal day-to-day circumstances that necessitate the use of resources (e.g., fuel for travel) we would not otherwise consume. Taking a spouse on a dream vacation or treating your best friend to a concert performance by their favorite band are examples. In such instances, it’s important to remember that giving an experience is less about avoiding resource use than shifting human attitudes and focus. The goal when gifting an experience is not to completely avoid consumption–we all consume resources as part of being alive. Rather, giving an experience shifts the focus away from material items as ends in themselves toward human interactions and the associated memories that will endure longer than most physical gifts possibly could. Memories are durable gifts! As a person who cares about sustainability, you can still try to incorporate responsible consumption into the equation if possible—perhaps by using local, sustainably harvested ingredients for the special dinner you’re preparing, buying carbon off-sets for the travel to that dream destination, or taking public transportation to the concert. The key is sharing or fostering experiences fulfills the human need for authentic connection rather than human desires for material goods, and reinforces the idea that relationships matter more than stuff. Valuing relationships between living things (in this case between people) is essential to thinking about ecosystems and the mindset that humans are a part of, rather than apart from, the rest of the natural world. Valuing relationships/connections can build a foundation for more sustainable behavior.

Give to Charity

Another option is to make a donation in honor of your loved one to a charitable organization that resonates with their interests and values. If you aren’t already aware of a specific group dear to their heart, you can search Charity Navigator at https://www.charitynavigator.org/ to find organizations by cause. The results display ratings, if Charity Navigator has adequate information to calculate one, based on “the cost-effectiveness and overall health of a charity’s programs, including measures of stability, efficiency, and sustainability.” You can filter the results by ratings, different aspects of performance (called “Beacons” on the site), state, organization size, and other factors. For example, I entered the term “sustainability” into the site’s search bar with the state filter “IL.” Charity Navigator also produces curated lists of charities, including “Where to Give Now,” “Popular Charities,” and “Best Charities.” As examples, check out the List of Best Women’s Charities, the “Where to Give Now” list for the Hawaii Wildfires, the List of Most Popular Charities. You can of course always enter keywords into Google or another search engine, but you might appreciate having Charity Navigator do some of the virtual “leg work” for you and having their expert analysis.

Note that your donation need not be monetary—you could donate your time or skills through volunteering. You might use your social media experience to help with promotion and online engagement for the literacy program for which your wife works, for example. You might even combine supporting a good cause important to your loved one with gifting an experience. For example, you might arrange to volunteer with an animal-loving friend at the local Humane Society shelter or pick up litter with your dad at his favorite nature preserve.

Give Gifts that Foster Reuse and Waste Reduction

Maybe you want to give your favorite waste reduction wonk items to help them get closer to the ideal of zero generation, but all you can think of are reusable coffee cups and cloth grocery bags which you know they already own. Here are some ideas and lists from which to draw inspiration.

Give Gifts that Reduce Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Friends don’t let friends rack up avoidable greenhouse gas emissions. Consult the following guides for some quick tips.

Give Gifts Free of PFAS

According to PFAS Central, a project of the Green Science Policy Institute, “PFAS, sometimes referred to as PFCs or highly fluorinated chemicals, are used in many consumer products and industrial applications because of their oil-, stain-, and water-repellent properties. Examples of chemicals in this class include PFOA, PFOS, and more than 3000 related compounds. The most studied of these substances is a chemical called PFOA, which is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, and thyroid problems and decreased immune response to vaccines in children. The most studied of these substances is a chemical called PFOA, which is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, and thyroid problems and decreased immune response to vaccines in children.” PFAS persist in the environment and pollute even the most remote places. Check out ISTC’s information and work on PFAS. This recent video from Bloomberg tells the fascinating story of how one woman uncovered how PFAS pollution became prevalent in her area.

So, these substances are clearly bad news for human and environmental health, but they’re in lots of consumer products—how can you help friends and family avoid exposure? Check out https://pfascentral.org/pfas-free-products/ for a list of PFAS-free outdoor gear, apparel, shoes, personal care products, baby gear, furniture, food ware, carpets and rugs, textiles, and home maintenance products.

ISTC/University of Birmingham exchange fosters collaboration

l-r: Perry Akrie (ISTC), Jim Best (UIUC Dept. of Geology), John Scott (ISTC), Stefan Krause (UB Ecohydrology and Biogeochemistry), and Rafael Omar Tinoco Lopez (UIUC Civil Engineering), with University of Birmingham students.

ISTC researchers recently visited the University of Plymouth and the University of Birmingham to learn more about their contaminants research. Perry Akrie, a visiting scientific specialist at ISTC, shares his impressions of the trip.

Our journey began with a trip to Plymouth to visit with Dr. Andrew Turner, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Plymouth, and a group of his students. John Scott gave a short talk about his research on microplastics at ISTC over the past several years and the students from Dr. Turner’s lab group presented their current research. Topics included polymer identification, additives and contaminants, adsorption of pollutants, fate and transport, weathering and degradation, and occurrence of microplastics.

John Scott (top) addresses Andrew Turner (bottom) and his students (not pictured). Photo credit: Perry Akrie

We also met with Rob Arnold, a colleague of Dr. Turner’s. Rob is an artist and activist on the topic of ocean pollution. He brought some of his collection of plastics that he has found washed up on the shore. This included a collection of vintage toothbrushes, assorted toys, and food wrappers, as well as a collection he affectionately refers to as “wedgies,” bits of plastic which have had other bits of plastic wedged into them in their travels through the ocean. Some of his most well-known art includes a 5.5-foot sculpture in the shape of the Moai statues of Easter Island that is made entirely of plastic waste. You see more of his art on Instagram (@rob.arnold.art).

Rob Turner displays his collection of microplastics found on beaches around England. Photo credit: Perry Akrie

We then traveled to the University of Birmingham to meet with members of the BRIDGE Birmingham-Illinois Partnership. This partnership has been in place since 2014. It allows both universities to exchange knowledge across disciplines through face-to-face meetings between faculty, staff, and students. As part of this program, Kate Rowley and Sophie Comer-Warner, students from the University of Birmingham, will be visiting ISTC to further their research.

The group from the University of Illinois included ISTC chemist John Scott, geology professor Jim Best, assistant professor of civil engineering Rafael Omar Tinoco Lopez, and and myself. We met with ecohydrology and biogeochemistry professor Stefan Krause and hydrology professor David Hannah from the University of Birmingham. We gave feedback on short presentations made by the students from Birmingham on topics that included transport of tire wear particles, biodegradation of microplastics in soils, and microplastics response to rainfall events.

BRIDGE meeting with researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Birmingham. Photo credit: Perry Akrie
BRIDGE meeting with researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Birmingham. Photo credit: Perry Akrie

The next day, we were taken on a tour of the preparation and analysis labs. Some of the most impressive facilities there were EcoLab and the National Buried Infrastructure Facility (NBIF).

EcoLab is a versatile open-air facility that hosts an array of experiments from many disciplines. Researchers in our host lab group have used it to study how microplastics are transported through water.

EcoLab includes a series of flumes that facilitate studies on the interaction between water, soils, plants, and other contaminants.
EcoLab includes a series of flumes that facilitate studies on the interaction between water, soils, plants, and other contaminants. Photo credit: Perry Akrie

The NBIF’s main feature is a 25m x 10m x 5m pit that can be split into smaller sections and filled with various structures, soils, and sensors related to several potential research questions. The sky is the limit for this one-of-a-kind facility.

The blocks at the far end of the NBIF pit are for building partitions
The blocks at the far end of the NBIF pit are for building partitions. Photo credit: Perry Akrie

U.S. EPA seeks feedback on draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution

Plastic debris on a beach with water in the background.
Debris at Magee Wildlife Area near Oak Harbor, OH. (Credit: NOAA)

Although plastics have led to many positive innovations that have benefitted human society (e.g. less expensive medical devices, more portable electronic devices, increased fuel efficiency of vehicles made with plastic incorporated in their bodies, etc.), it is clear that plastic pollution is an ever-growing problem that threatens human and environmental health. When considering the fate of all plastic ever produced, Geyer et al. estimated that as of 2015, “approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.” [Note: Mt=million metric tons] In its 2022 report, Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that “Widespread plastics use and inadequate prevention measures have led to persistent plastic leakage. In 2019 an estimated 22 Mt of plastics leaked into the environment. The largest leakage source (82%) is mismanaged waste, i.e. waste that is inadequately disposed of. Other sources are abrasion and losses of microplastics (12%), littering (5%) and marine activities (1%).” They define “mismanaged waste” as “Waste that is not captured by any state-of-the-art waste collection or treatment facilities. It includes waste that is burned in open pits, dumped into seas or open waters, or disposed of in unsanitary landfills and dumpsites.” Even when plastics are collected and processed at a recycling facility, there is still potential for pollution. A study published this month in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances describes the analysis of wastewater from a UK plastics recycling facility before and after filters were installed. While filters decreased the discharge of microplastics, even with the filters in place, the total discharge from the multiple washes used in processing could produce up to 75 billion particles per cubic meter of wastewater. If these findings are extrapolated across the whole of the plastics recycling industry, the potential pollution from plastic recycling facilities alone is mind-boggling.

Plastics in the environment break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. The full extent of the impacts of micro- and nano-plastics on Earth’s ecosystems is unknown, but we do know that wildlife may ingest plastic accidentally when eating food waste contained in plastic, because of visual similarities of plastics to their food sources, and in some cases because the plastic smells like food. When prey animals consume plastic, their predators ingest the plastic along with the prey. Even humans can ingest plastic in this way, and microplastics can also be inhaled. Microplastics are found worldwide, even in protected areas. They have been found in sea ice in the Arctic and on the ocean floor. They’ve even been found in human breast milk.

Given the scale and ubiquity of plastic pollution, in April 2023 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution This builds upon EPA’s National Recycling Strategy, focusing on means to reduce, reuse, collect, and capture plastic waste.

image of national strategy cover pageEPA has identified three key objectives for the strategy. The draft strategy document lists proposed actions associated with each objective.

  • Objective A: Reduce pollution during plastic production. This entails designing products for reuse and recycling, using less impactful materials, phasing out unnecessary products, and ensuring proper controls at plastic production facilities.
  • Objective B: Improve post-use materials management. This involves the pursuit of circularity through pathways susch as reuse, refilling, and composting.
  • Objective C: Prevent trash and micro/nanoplastics from entering waterways and remove escaped trash from the environment. The pursuit of this objective may involve policy, programs, technical assistance, compliance assurance efforts, improved water management, improved measurement, increased public awareness, and further research.

Read the full draft strategy at https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2023-04/Draft_National_Strategy_to_Prevent_Plastic_Pollution.pdf. An executive summary is also available.

EPA has opened a public comment period on this draft national strategy. Comments are due on or before June 16, 2023. EPA is asking the public to consider several key questions when reviewing and commenting on the draft strategy. To see these questions and learn more about how to submit your comments, see https://www.epa.gov/circulareconomy/draft-national-strategy-prevent-plastic-pollution#feedback.

ISTC scientist is set to develop technology addressing water contaminated with PFAS

Man-made per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” withstand many treatment options and bioaccumulate in the environment, posing serious environmental and health concerns. With a three-year, nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) scientists are developing a new technology to remove and destroy PFAS from contaminated water using a designer biochar produced from woody biomass or agricultural residues such as corn stalks and cobs.

PFAS are a widely used class of chemicals found in many different consumer, commercial, and industrial products, including non-stick coatings and textiles. Since the 1970s, PFAS have also been used in firefighting foam, which is why the DOD is interested in finding new solutions to clean up contaminated sites where firefighters have trained, according to Wei Zheng, principal investigator of the project at ISTC, a unit of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Activated carbon, as a most common adsorbent, is typically used to treat PFAS-containing water. Once the activated carbon is saturated with the contaminants, the spent adsorbent is incinerated. However, incineration, even done at sufficiently high temperatures, cannot completely destruct PFAS and will create some hazardous and toxic byproducts. In 2022, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Defense placed a temporary ban on incineration of materials containing PFAS until safe guidance for disposal of PFAS is issued.

“If incineration is not an option, the spent adsorbent ends up in the landfill where PFAS can leach to water sources and evaporate to air because they won’t degrade,” Zheng said. “So, PFAS will go back to the environment. In this way we just solve one issue but generate a new problem.”

In addition, wastewater treatment plants can’t solve the PFAS issue because these contaminants are never destroyed by conventional treatment techniques. That is why they are called forever chemicals.

In the new project, Zheng will develop a hydrothermal technology, likened to pressure cooking, that will destroy PFAS absorbed on low-cost designer biochar created at ISTC, and at the same time reactivate the biochar that has reached its sorption capacity for reuse. Thus, the designer biochar will act a double role as an adsorbent to remove PFAS from contaminated water and as a catalyst to destroy these compounds under a hydrothermal system. 

“The most important and innovative aspect of the project will be the complete destruction of PFAS once they are removed from the water,” Zheng said. “PFAS are widely detected in the environment and in the atmosphere. Our project is designed to mitigate human exposure to PFAS, helping to find ways to indeed solve this problem.”

ISTC is collaborating with researchers at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Construction Engineering Research Laboratory on this project.

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Media contact: Wei Zheng, 217-333-7276, weizheng@illinois.edu
news@prairie.illinois.edu

Synthetic chemicals found in over 8 million Illinoisans’ drinking water

Synthetic chemicals are pervasive in our everyday lives. They’re in many of the products we use like fast food wrappers, cleaning products and personal care items. Even when we’re done with those things, the chemicals live on, and the impacts of that are far-reaching. A Chicago Tribune investigation earlier this year found more than 8 million people in Illinois get their drinking water utilities where at least one forever chemical has been detected . That’s six out of every 10 Illinoisans.

WILL-AM’s The 21st spoke to a panel of guests, including ISTC’s John Scott, to hear more about the study and learn about the impacts of emerging contaminants.

Listen to the recording on The 21st website.

Scientists study ways to reduce PPCPs transferred from soils to food plants

Plant growing in soil

The debate continues: how much risk to human health is the transfer of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) through soils to food plants when biosolids, sewage effluents, and animal wastes are applied to fields? As scientists speculate and study the factors that affect risk, researchers at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) are finding innovative solutions to remove PPCPs before they contaminate the vegetables and fruits we consume.

PPCPs are the chemicals that make up fragrances, cosmetics, over-the-counter drugs, and veterinary medicines. These chemical residues in the environments are considered emerging contaminants because they are not yet regulated by state and federal agencies.

Organic wastes like biosolids, sewage effluent, and animal waste contain PPCP residues. When these are applied to farm fields, some of the chemicals may degrade, while others may transfer from soils to roots of vegetables and fruits, and then possibly accumulate in edible plant tissues.

Field studies have shown that pharmaceutical concentrations in soils were lower than predicted because PPCPs may degrade in soils, latch on to soil particles, or run off/leach into surface and groundwater. Yet continued and long-term application of PPCP-containing biosolids, animal wastes, and wastewater effluents may increase their concentration levels in plants, according to Wei Zheng, ISTC scientist.

“There has been much argument and debate if PPCPs derived from organic waste application in crop fields can cause risks on public health,” Zheng said. “This issue will become even more at the forefront as the use of biosolids and sewage effluents in crop production systems increases. More studies are necessary because PPCPs vary in their toxicity and physicochemical properties in the environment. In particular, the compounds that are highly persistent and toxic will be a concern.”

Zheng reviewed the literature, summarized the research findings, and made recommendations for future research in a recent article published in Current Pollution Reports.

Factors affecting PPCP transfer

In his review, Zheng reiterated that the factors that have the greatest effect on PPCP transfer are the properties of the PPCPs and soils as well as plant species. Plants grown in sandy soils have higher levels of PPCPs than those grown in high organic matter and clay soils. For certain PPCPs that are destroyed in soils, the process breaks down the original compound into metabolites that may be more toxic and mobile. Metabolites with lower molecular weights could be taken up by plant roots more readily.

Studies have also found that leafy vegetables, such as lettuce and cabbage, tend to have a higher potential to take in PPCPs than root vegetables. Furthermore, certain chemicals accumulate in the roots and have little effect on human health, while others can be transferred to leaves. Further research is needed to develop thresholds for accumulations of PPCPs in food crops when biosolids, effluents, and animal manure are used on fields.

Mitigation efforts

At ISTC, Wei and colleagues are studying several technologies to remove PPCPs, either before they reach the soils or after sewage waste application. The study is being supported by a project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In the project, Wei is studying the feasibility of using inexpensive oils to capture hydrophobic PPCPs from wastewater effluents. The treatment, which would be used at water treatment plants, is especially low cost when applying used cooking oils, such as those from restaurants.

One advantage of this process is that oils remove PPCPs from rural sewage water while leaving behind the nutrients that fertilize crops. After capturing PPCPs, the spent oils can be used as fuel for diesel engines. The process can eliminate the captured contaminants.

Carbon-rich biochar produced from forest and agricultural residues can be used as a filter to absorb PPCPs from sewage water.  Biochar can also be directly applied to soils.

Studies found that the average PPCP concentrations in lettuce leaves decreased by 23 to 55 percent when biochar was used in the soil compared with the soils without biochar. Biochar can also be composted with solid waste to immobilize PPCPs and reduce their transfer in soil-plant systems.

In the USDA project, scientists will conduct laboratory, field, and numerical modeling studies to better understand the transfer of PPCPs to crops when rural sewage effluents are applied to agricultural lands. The results will help federal and state agencies and farmers evaluate their current nutrient management and nontraditional water-use practices, inform science-based regulatory programs, and suggest best management strategies to minimize risks and promote the safe and beneficial use of nontraditional water in agriculture.


Media contact: Wei Zheng, 217-333-7276, weizheng@illinois.edu
news@prairie.illinois.edu

This story originally appeared on the PRI News Blog. Read the original story.

New project is set to find ways to manage emerging contaminants

Scientists at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) are tackling the issue of pharmaceutical contaminants from irrigation with rural sewage effluents in a newly funded project.

Collaborating with the Illinois State Water Survey, principal investigator Wei Zheng has begun a three-year study to investigate emerging contaminants, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), in fields irrigated with effluents from rural sewage treatment plants and to develop effective strategies to reduce the amount of contaminants transported to surface or groundwater.

Rural sewage effluent has great potential as an alternative to irrigation water, yet there are concerns about possible negative effects. Rural treatment plants are less effective at removing PPCPs compared to municipal wastewater treatment plants. Therefore, the use of effluents might pose a risk to surface and groundwater ecosystems.

Also, field tile drainage systems, which are commonly used in the Midwest, may accelerate the losses of these chemical contaminants from agricultural soils to nearby watersheds. The potential negative effects of using rural sewage effluent to irrigate tile-drained fields are essentially unknown.

In this project, the research team will conduct a series of laboratory, field, and numerical modeling studies to investigate the processes affecting contaminant transport, track the occurrence of PPCPs, and develop two cost-effective control techniques, oil capture and biochar-sorption channels.

The results will help federal and state agencies and farmers evaluate their current nontraditional water-use practices, inform science-based regulatory programs, and suggest best management strategies to minimize risks and promote the safe and beneficial use of nontraditional water in agriculture.

The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Media contact: Wei Zheng, 217-333-7276, weizheng@illinois.edunews@prairie.illinois.edu

ISTC delivers Contaminants of Emerging Concern Report to Illinois General Assembly

In 2018, Illinois’ governor signed House Bill IL-HB5741, which amended the University of Illinois Scientific Surveys Act. The bill directed the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) to conduct a scientific literature review of contaminants of emerging concern in wastewater treatment plant effluent. It also requested that PRI compile a listing of the specific actions recommended by various state and federal agencies to address the environmental or public health concerns associated with these chemicals.

The final report was filed with the General Assembly earlier this week. It reviews the current state of scientific knowledge about contaminants of emerging concern (CEC) in wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), discusses concentrations of CEC in WWTPs, and reviews existing treatment technologies and U.S. federal and state laws.

The report is available in IDEALS.