CivMin’s Prof. Passeport among group awarded nearly $1M NSERC grant for microplastics pollution research

Professor Elodie Passeport

U of T researchers are among those in a large multidisciplinary and multi-institutional project to track Ontario’s microplastics pollution.

CivMin Professor Elodie Passeport (jointly appointed with ChemE), along with Profs. Miriam Diamond (Earth Sciences and ChemE.), Maria Dittrich (UTSC) are all co-principal investigators (PI) on a project awarded a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The PI is Prof. Jill Crossman at University of Windsor (UWindsor), who is coordinating the project.

In an announcement Monday, May 31, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, the Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, and Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, announced the Government of Canada is providing close to $7 million to support seven science-based research projects. Passeport and colleagues from partner universities are to receive a nearly $1 million grant from NSERC and Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) 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.

The multidisciplinary, multi-institutional project is to develop new tools to test, analyze and track Ontario’s microplastics pollution. 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.

“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.

“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. 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,” says Crossman.

The UWindsor team, headed by Crossman, is joined by researchers from the University of Toronto, Trent University, and Western University; an industrial partner Wilson Analytical; and scientists from Environment Canada, Ontario Ministry of Environment Conservation and Parks, and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority. The researchers will visit various 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 however, 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.

In addition to developing standards for existing methods, new analytical tools and approaches will be investigated. Dr. Mundle, a professor at the School of Environment and researcher with the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) will develop new isotope finger-printing methods that will be used for source tracking of microplastics across Ontario. Dr Mundle says “we will use recent developments in mass spectrometry methods to isolate previously unidentifiable environmental processes, generating unique fingerprints of δ2H, δ15N and δ13C which vary by polymer, region of manufacture and environmental degradation process. This will enable users to track microplastics in the environment back to their original source”

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.

Funding allocation listed here.