Microplastics pollution: Science researchers address key research gaps

Monday, May 31, 2021

Plastics collected from a beach.Plastics pollution is a global environmental hazard with potentially harmful impacts on wildlife, ecosystem services, and human health and wellbeing. Microplastics in particular are of great concern because of their ability to be transported over great distances and absorb and disperse contaminants widely. Due to their extremely small sizes (from several millimeters to less than a micrometer) and great variety of shapes (pellets, films, fibers), one of the most significant research challenges is attempting to identify sources, transport pathways and environmental fates of microplastics.

An interdisciplinary research team lead by Professor Philippe Van Cappellen from the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, intends to close critical gaps in our understanding of plastic pollution and its impacts, and generate new knowledge to support policy and decision-making aimed at reducing microplastic pollution and enabling the shift to a circular economy for plastics in Canada.

The project includes three researchers from the Department of Chemistry: Professors Rodney SmithJohn Honek and Juewen Liu.

"By assembling together researchers from across the University of Waterloo, we will improve the capacity to detect, quantify and characterize microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment, and develop the assessment and modelling tools needed to comprehensively describe their sources and environmental fates,” said Van Cappellen. “Our goal is to contribute to science-based risk assessments, governance approaches and adaptive watershed management strategies designed to reduce and prevent the environmental and health impacts of plastics. "

This interdisciplinary project brings together expertise in watershed hydrology, limnology, organic chemistry, biochemistry, analytical chemistry, material sciences, nanotechnology, drinking water protection, wastewater treatment, environmental modelling, and environmental economics. The proposed holistic approach will link the sources, transport pathways, fate and exposure risks of microplastics at the scale of entire watersheds.

Within Chemistry, projects include the following:

  • John Honek’s group is preparing various surface modified plastics to serve as reference standards for the project in order for the team to rapidly identify various plastics and their degradation stages in natural water systems.
  • Juewen Liu and his team will be looking at DNA adsorption on microplastics and explore the possibility of using DNA to detect microplastics in natural systems.
  • Rodney Smith’s group proposes to use Raman Spectroscopy to identify polymer composition of microplastics.

The project is supported through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) and Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) joint funding initiative on Plastics science for a cleaner future. Environment and Climate Change Canada made the announcement today.

The project’s principal investigators are members of the University of Waterloo’s Water Institute. They include Philippe Van Cappellen and Fereidoun Rezanezhad (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Rodney Smith, John Honek and Juewen Liu (Chemistry), and Roland Hall (Biology), from the Faculty of Science, as well as researchers from across campus including Carolyn Ren (Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering), Wayne Parker and Peter Huck (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Roy Brouwer (Economics).

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