You’re going to be hearing more and more about microplastics all over the world in the coming months and years. That’s because they are literally all over this Earth. And they are a problem that ranks right up there with climate change. Yup, our beloved Earth is overheating and simultaneously becoming layered in plastic. Warm plastic world. Yuck.
Sound dramatic? It is. And with good reason. It’s an assessment based on cutting edge scientific research happening around the globe in all five ocean gyres — and in our backyard here in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec, Canada. Life Without Plastic recently had the opportunity to take part in some of this science in action. We’ll get to that, but first…
What are microplastics?
They are tiny tiny pieces of plastic creating a pernicious plastic smog in our waterways. Microplastics are plastic particles less than 5 mm in size. Imagine bits of plastic ranging from the size of a sunflower seed to a miniscule speck of dust invisible to the naked eye — think nanoplastic. They come from multiple sources, including:
- broken down bits of larger plastic objects like packaging, bottles, bags, disposable food containers;
- microfibers from synthetic fabrics – think fleeces, socks, sweaters (they could be airborne or wash down the drain);
- small plastic pellets from industrial sources; and
- microbeads used in personal care products including toothpaste, body scrubs, and even poison ivy anti-inflammatory cream!
Some microfibers and microbeads are removed by wastewater treatment systems, but significant amounts still make their way into our waterways.
A third of our food is estimated to be now contaminated with plastic microfibers.
Where do we find microplastics?
Researchers first observed plastics in the ocean back in 1972 in the western North Atlantic. These small plastics consisted of industrial pellets and broken down plastic fragments.
Fast forward 40 years.
In 2012, the first study of microplastics in the surface waters of the Great Lakes found concentrations up to almost half a million microplastic particles per square kilometre. A 2016 study of 29 Great Lakes tributaries found floating plastic in all 107 samples. 98% of that plastic was microplastics less than 4.75 mm in size.
OK, so there are some tiny plastic pieces in the oceans and lakes and rivers. What’s the big deal? Oceans and lakes are massive water bodies, so won’t the microplastics simply dilute and break down into nothing?
NOPE. Dilution is not the solution. It’s just a form of denial that worsens the problem, especially when the item in question doesn’t break down completely in any reasonable timeframe. Plastic doesn’t dilute. Plastic is made from fossil fuels and takes hundreds to thousands of years to fully break down. Once microplastics get into the environment, they are there for a very long time.
Why are microplastics a problem?
Plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces quite quickly in the water due to degradation from the sun and other weathering processes. But they are still toxic plastics. They simply become smaller and more widespread toxic plastics. And they become even more toxic because they readily adsorb toxic pollutants that are already in the water — pesticides, PCBs, dioxins, radioactive waste, heavy metals.
As they break down, plastics resemble edible life forms, and even smell like them (!) attracting birds and fish to them as a food. Microplastics are consumed by tiny zooplankton at the base of the food chain. The plankton are eaten by mussels and other small fish, and those fish by larger fish and birds. Up the food chain they go, concentrating toxic chemicals in the fat tissue of each organism along the way through a process known as bioaccumulation. So by the time a fish reaches a human, that perch, trout, tilapia or tuna can contain a cocktail of accumulated toxins.
What to do? Enter citizen science!
A key step in dealing with this microplastic problem is understanding and measuring the extent of it. This past summer we had the opportunity to take part in some microplastics sampling on the Gatineau River. That’s the Gatineau River we swim and play in just about every day through the summer months. It’s a huge part of our lives.
Ottawa Riverkeeper (ORK), through its Riverwatch Program coordinated by staff scientist Dr. Meaghan Murphy, got together with Dr. Jesse Vermaire of Carleton University to organize microplastics testing in surface waters throughout the Ottawa River watershed. The community-based volunteer organization Friends of the Gatineau River (FOG) helped with this testing along the Gatineau River.
Riverwatch volunteer Neil Faulkner asked us if we would be interested in tagging along, helping out, and spreading the word about the issue, process and results. You better believe we were!
We joined Neil and FOG volunteer Steve Ferguson, both friends and Wakefield neighbours of ours (as are Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown and FOG President Ronnie Drever), on a gorgeous August morning to cruise the Gatineau doing FOG’s regular water quality testing and the microplastics sampling. We were all set up with the Riverkeeper’s trusty vessel and sampling equipment from Jesse.
Steve was at the helm and Neil sat up front providing a fascinating running commentary on the history and activities along the lively Gatineau River. A vintage mini-tugboat used during the logging days…the cottage of famed photographer Malak Karsh…a majestic long-necked blue heron soaring across the river a foot above the surface…sailing camp kids at the Gatineau River Yacht Club out zipping around in little Laser 2 sailboats.
The importance of protecting and respecting the river becomes all the more poignant when you’re out on it feeling its deep blue living breathing beauty.
The sampling protocol
Our sampling equipment consisted of:
- sterile fine mesh filters and bags to store them;
- a metal frame, and clamp to attach the filter to the frame;
- a 4L container for pouring water through the filter;
- the datasheet for recording details of the testing.
We all wore non-synthetic clothing (cotton) to avoid contamination from synthetic fabrics, which shed microfibers quite easily.
We sampled from three locations, each about a kilometre apart at least: Farm Point Docks, Mary Anne Phillips Park, and Cohen Farm (which is actually now Gibson farm!).
Gathering one sample involved pouring 100 litres of water from the sample location through the filter. On the left you can see Neil and Steve filling the 4 litre container and pouring it through the filter – this had to be done 25 times for each sample. So one of us was counting out loud to avoid losing track.
Once the sampling was complete, the filter was carefully unclamped and placed gingerly into a clean bag and sealed. Then off they went to Prof Jesse for him and his team to analyse.
You may have noticed, the pouring container and the sample storage bag are both plastic. Contamination? This was not considered an issue as both were made of brand new, intact, smooth surface plastics which were not expected to affect the results.
A couple of months later the results arrived…
The Results: Are there microplastics in the Gatineau River surface waters?
Yes, there are. All three samples contained microplastics. Here’s the breakdown:
Plastic pieces per 100 litres
|9 Aug 16||Farm Point Docks||6|
|9 Aug 16||Mary Anne Phillips Park||
|3||9 Aug 16||Cohen Farm||
This was not a huge surprise to us given what we do and our awareness of the widespread nature of the problem. But it sure is good to have it confirmed scientifically. This is the sort of data that can lead to changes in people’s behaviour and government policy over time.
It was interesting to note that all the plastics found were microfibers. Jesse suspects they are coming from synthetic fabrics. As well, he thinks these microplastic particles were airborne as dust and then settled on the surface of the water.
Meaghan provided some further context, noting that the mean across all samples Riverwatch collected throughout the Ottawa River watershed was 13.5 plastics/ 100L. The median was 11 plastics/ 100L, and range was 5 – 45 plastics/ 100L. She explained that our Gatineau River values are comparable to what they found in the upper portion of the Ottawa River (before entering the cities of Gatineau and Ottawa) but generally lower than the samples from the Rideau River (which runs through the city of Ottawa).
You can read more about overall results of this first ever study of microplastics in the Ottawa River watershed in this post on the ORK website.
Onward! What you can do…
For starters, we can all take a look at the clothing we purchase and choose to avoid synthetic fibers. Even leading ecofriendly clothing maker Patagonia, which has fleece items as part of its core product line, commissioned its own research project and admits there is a problem. We suspect – and hope – they are working on some sort of alternative. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.
You can spread the word about the issue. Look through the link provided above and learn more about microplastics. Tell your friends and family.
Become a citizen scientist! ORK is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which has chapters all over the world. These dynamic non-profit organizations are taking action to protect waterways and ensure clean water. Contact a local Waterkeeper Alliance organization in your community and offer to help out with microplastics testing.
If they are not doing microplastics testing, well, you have stumbled onto a magnificent opportunity to make a tangible difference. Direct them to the ORK Riverwatch program and this blogpost to show them what citizen science microplastics testing can look like. Then offer to help them start up a citizen science microplastic sampling program.
You can be the voice of the rivers, lakes and oceans. They will thank you.
And of course, as we have always advocated, one of the best things you can do is to reduce your overall use and consumption of plastics in your everyday life.
The following three suggestions from ORK include some of the basics for ridding your life of the plastics that surround us, including microplastics/microbeads and beyond:
“1. Avoid purchasing products with microbeads.
- For a list of product in Canada that contain microbeads, visit Beat the Microbead.
- Avoid toothpaste, soaps, cleansers, and other personal care products with polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon in their ingredients.
2. Toss the products you do have.
- Most of us have at least some products with microbeads in them. The best way to dispose of them is to tighten the lid and put them in the garbage. Avoid sending the product down the drain, as most water treatment plants can’t remove them (this is how they end up in our waterways in the first place).
- Make a statement to the companies that manufacture them by sending the products back to them with a letter explaining that you disapprove of their use of microplastics in their products.
- Say no to bottled water: opt for reusable water bottles and coffee mugs.
- Cut out the plastics bags: use containers instead.
- Purchase products in bulk or with limited plastic packaging.
- Recycle and reuse the plastics you do have.
- Pick up the plastic litter around you. Much of that plastic is washed into our storm drains and drainage ditches and eventually makes it to our waterways.”