Microplastics pollution: Science researchers address key research gaps

Monday, May 31, 2021

strainer with microplastics taken from water bodyPlastics 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, and a member of the Water Institute, 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.

"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.

The research team builds on strong partnerships and will be working closely with federal (Environment and Climate Change Canada), provincial (Ontario Clean Water Agency) and regional (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, Region of Waterloo) government agencies, a non-governmental organization (Environmental Defence), a start-up company (Hoola One), University of Waterloo’s Water Institute, and the newly funded European research project EUROqCHARM: European quality Controlled Harmonization Assuring Reproducible Monitoring and assessment of plastic pollution.

Philippe Van Cappellen“Our partners recognize that the issue of microplastics is of great public concern,” said Van Cappellen. “Working collaboratively with these partners will increase our capacity to explore more watersheds, access additional equipment and facilities, and facilitate public messaging, knowledge transfer and policy responses."

The research team will be sampling a number of watersheds across Canada. Important objectives are to analyze the reactivity and breakdown of microplastics in river systems and reservoirs, quantify the loads of microplastics delivered to the lower Great Lakes, optimize microplastics elimination in wastewater treatment plants, and determine the abundance and diversity of microplastics in drinking water sources and assess the associated exposure risks and economic implications.

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 Philippe Van Cappellen and Fereidoun Rezanezhad (Earth and Environmental Sciences), Rodney SmithJohn 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).