Oceans are becoming the world's largest trashcan. Once marveled for their array of biodiversity, our oceans now harbour trillions of pieces of microplastics. The fragmented pieces of plastic arise from everyday use items such as food packaging, cosmetics and clothing. The overwhelming amount of microplastics present in the oceans poses a major threat to not only marine life but also human health, turning a micro item into a macro problem.
Improving our understanding of exposure to plastics and their characteristics is critical to our ability to pinpoint potential hotspots or zones of accumulation in water bodies. It's also crucial to helping us identify pollution sources, assess environmental impacts, inform prevention strategies and guide recovery and cleanup.
Sea-zing a new opportunity
A new initiative is being built on ongoing research supported by the National Research Council of Canada's (NRC) Ocean program. A multidisciplinary team that includes researchers with expertise in environmental fluid dynamics, chemistry and environmental science are developing a novel suite of technologies and methodologies for environmental characterization and predicting the fate of microplastic and nanoplastic particles. The researchers are also working on modelling the movement and behaviour of these particles in Canadian surface water systems and developing a better understanding of their impact on marine life. The project involves 4 components.
The 2 first components are a collaboration between the Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre, the Energy, Mining and Environment Research Centre, professor Parisa Ariya and her team at McGill University's Department of Chemistry and Ocean Diagnostics, a Canadian company that focuses on understanding and addressing plastic pollution. The first one is the development of in situ sensing technology, which will make it possible to track and examine in 3-D and in real time the size, shape and transformation of particles ranging in size from nanometres to centimetres.
The second one involves the development of a numerical model for predicting the fate and transport of microplastics in Canadian marine and freshwater systems. This model will use AI algorithms to improve its performance.
Led by the Metrology Research Centre, the third component involves developing the chemical characterization and fate of microplastics and nanoplastics. The work includes developing robust and reproducible analytical methods to extract and separate plastic particles from water bodies and aquatic organisms, enabling the identification of plastic types and assessment of their morphology and toxicity. The research team is currently focused on producing and analyzing environmentally relevant nanoplastic certified reference materials to validate the methodologies being developed.
Last, the Aquatic and Crop Resource Development Research Centre will look to leverage the NRC's unique facilities and expertise in zebrafish research to detect the uptake, bioaccumulation, toxicity and tissue distribution of microplastics and nanoplastics in biological systems. This work will develop a valuable model to better and more rapidly correlate the characteristics of microplastics and nanoplastics to the effect on marine life.
Tackling a Canadian priority
This project's ultimate objective is to develop a decision support system tool for managing the risks associated with microplastics and nanoplastics in Canada's open water systems. The tool will provide policymakers, regulators, water resources managers and others the knowledge to better understand the risks associated with plastic pollution and to take actions needed to reduce plastic pollution and its potential impacts on wildlife, the natural environment and human health. Decision-makers will have access to real-time information on the sources and distribution of plastic pollution in Canadian surface water systems, allowing them to identify zones of pollution accumulations, or hotspots, so they can conduct risk assessments.
The tool will also help them develop, evaluate and optimize pollution prevention strategies by, for example, identifying major pollutant sources or analyzing scenarios to investigate the effects of changes in pollutant sources or loads. These efforts will lead to targeted clean-up and recovery activities and regulations and policies for the production, use, release into the environment, mitigation and recycling of plastics.
"With further data collection and access to more accurate data, we can learn where microplastics are coming from and where they are assembling to take action to reduce plastic waste," says Vahid Pilechi, Researcher and Team Lead at the NRC's Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre. "With access to this knowledge, and with continued public awareness efforts, Canada can drive the needle forward in the protection of our precious open water systems."