How much do YOU know about micro-plastics?

Micro-plastics are pesky, persistent, and puny pieces of plastic that are manufactured microscopically (think: face wash beads) or have broken down from larger plastic pieces that have been littered (think: plastic water bottles).

They are becoming a very well-known environmental problem.

Micro-plastics may be tiny – but they are a big problem.

This is because wildlife (both big and small) in or around rivers can ingest micro-plastics. If ingested, microplastics block the gastrointestinal track of organisms, tricking them into thinking they don’t need to eat. This ultimately leads to starvation and high concentrations of toxins in their systems.

This is terrible news – even for humans.

Microplastics have recently been detected in humans for the first time. As greater concentrations of plastic particles are being consumed by marine species, they will continue to make their way onto our dinner plates.

Microplastics are an emerging area of research due to the significant concern regarding their impact on the aquatic environment – and human health.

There is very limited knowledge on the sources and sinks of microplastics in lakes, especially in pristine areas such as Muskoka-Haliburton.

Brittany Welsh (pictured below), a Master’s student in the Environmental and Life Sciences Program at Trent University, is studying the abundance of microplastics in the Muskoka Haliburton Region. 

She is collecting samples from 4 sources:

  1. Lake water
  2. Streams that flow into and out of the lake
  3. Lake sediment
  4. Rainfall

Brittany’s project will be one of the first to provide insight into what the sources and sinks of microplastics are in pristine, remote lake environments.

Brittany is collecting samples from the lakes, streams and rainfall stations across the region over a 12-month period and filtering them through a filter paper. Sediment samples are being collected from the deepest point of the lake, dried in an oven, digested to remove organic matter and then filtered. The filter papers are then visually analyzed under a microscope for the presence of microplastics.

So far, Brittany has found:

  1. Lakes that have a higher density of cottages have a higher concentration of microplastics in the sediment compared with lakes with a lower density of cottages.
  2. The amount of microplastics at the rainfall stations across the Muskoka-Haliburton region increased with increasing human activity.
  3. Atmospheric transport may be an important source of microplastics to enter the lakes in the region

 

Brittany’s next steps are to analyze the data to determine the number of microplastics in lake water, how many enter the lake through inflow streams and rainfall, and how many leave the lake in outflow streams or become buried in sediment on an annual basis.

Understanding the sources and sinks of microplastics in the environment is important due to the significant concern regarding their impact to the aquatic environment, especially aquatic organisms.

Microplastics contain chemical additives that can leach into the surrounding environment and can also adsorb and accumulate toxic compounds – and eventually be consumed by humans.

Improving our understanding of microplastics is the first step towards mitigating the impact of microplastics and will assist in guiding policy and management of plastic pollution. 

 This research shows that there are signs of microplastics in the Haliburton-Muskoka regions – and that we must work harder to stop plastic from entering our waterways. 

Thank you Brittany for sharing your research about micro-plastics and helping us bring attention to this growing environmental threat around the world.

 

Here is what Brittany has to say about her time at Trent University:

“I continue to enjoy my time at Trent University, first as an Undergraduate and now as a Graduate student. Throughout my terms at Trent, I have been introduced and have worked closely with many students, staff and faculty.  These contacts have provided me with amazing research opportunities; for example, working with and at the Dorset Environmental Science Centre. I have been given the incredible opportunity to work with Dr. Julian Aherne and Dr. Andrew Paterson in conducting research on this new topic in science and cannot thank them enough for their invaluable support and guidance throughout this project.”