UWindsor researchers and institutional partners are tackling microplastics pollution at its source.
Researchers must solve the mystery of where microplastics originate, as well as how they travel and where they end up, before the major international pollution problem can be curtailed.
Jill Crossman, a professor in the School of the Environment, is co-ordinating a million-dollar multidisciplinary, multi-institutional project to develop new tools to test, analyze, and track Ontario’s microplastics pollution.
“There are severe knowledge gaps limiting our ability to track plastics already in the environment and these gaps remain a key roadblock to efficient policy implementation,” says Dr. Crossman.
Crossman, along with UWindsor researchers Scott Mundle, Bulent Mutus, James Gauld, and Simon Rondeau-Gagné, and colleagues from partner universities, have received a nearly $1 million grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) and Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Plastics Science for A Cleaner Future program for their project, Source-specific identification, characterization and control of microplastics across a remote, rural and urban gradient.
“Canadian and international concern is mounting regarding risks associated with microplastic ubiquity, accumulation, and potential for ingestion — particularly now that they are being found in such remote environments, so far from any obvious sources,” says Crossman.
“To get a clear picture of where microplastics end up, we will be tracking and testing what proportion of microplastics are found in the atmosphere, in watersheds, and in soil in remote, rural, and urban areas across Ontario.”
The UWindsor team is joined by researchers from the University of Toronto, Trent University, and Western University; industrial partner Wilson Analytical; and scientists from Environment Canada, Ontario Ministry of Environment Conservation and Parks, and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority.
Team members will visit industrial, agricultural, and urban sites throughout the year to identify key sources, transportation processes, and pathways of microplastics. The program will become an important resource for future research through the creation of an open access data portal.
Crossman’s focus will be on developing and calibrating watershed models, supported by the databases developed within the program, which will be used to identify source contributions and sustainable control measures.
Before collecting any data, the group will develop uniform investigation methods for analyzing samples of air, water, and soil and create a harmonized microplastics surveillance network.
“The research is designed around a cross-institutional training and graduate exchange program, enabling students to gain experience on a wide range of analytical instruments as they travel between universities,” says Crossman.
“The field of microplastics analysis is relatively new, so in addition to a lack of data, there is a lack of consistent approaches to analysis, which up until now has limited our ability to compare findings between studies. This program addresses these gaps.”
In addition to developing standards for existing methods, the team will investigate new analytical tools and approaches.
Dr. Mundle, a professor in the School of the Environment and researcher with the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is working to develop new ways to track pollutants to their sources.
“We will use recent developments in mass spectrometry methods to isolate previously unidentifiable environmental processes, generating unique fingerprints of chemical isotopes which vary by polymer, region of manufacture, and environmental degradation process,” he says.
“This will enable users to track microplastics in the environment back to their original source.”
Drs. Mutus, Rondeau-Gagné, and Gauld from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry will develop new tools for high-resolution microplastics sample analysis. Mutus will lead the development of new real-time sensors.
“A great team of chemists and biochemists will attempt to make an affinity ligand for plastics — something that binds specifically to plastic,” he says. “This will be incorporated into a device that will quantify and trap microplastics.”
By working directly with municipal and federal stakeholders and engaging with a diverse group of collaborators, the program aims to develop knowledge which will be directly applied to support effective microplastics mitigation policies which can be used across Canada.