Community Scientists Tackle Microplastic Pollution
Updated: Apr 12, 2022
Cleaning beaches, spreading awareness and collecting data. Learn how community scientists contribute important information to microplastics research.
Dr. Tony Walker explains how secondary microplastics come from consumer products and how community scientists play an important role in conquering plastic pollution in Canada
Plastics in pieces: Microplastics have two different production routes
Microplastics are either intentionally manufactured plastic beads 5mm or less in size (primary microplastics) or they are formed when large plastics break down into pieces smaller than 5mm (secondary microplastics).
Secondary microplastics include fibers from clothing, plastic pieces rubbing off tires, and small fragments of other plastic items, such as small pieces of plastic bags, plastics from tea bags, fragments of fishing nets, and more.
These plastics break down in the environment when they are exposed to harsh sunlight, various temperatures, saltwater, high winds, and waves.
Scientists now know that microplastics are everywhere, including the water we drink and the air we breathe. Experimental studies have found that microplastics are toxic, but the level of toxicity is different depending on the type of chemicals in the plastic and how much microplastics are in the environment.
Scientists, like Dalhousie University professor Dr. Tony Walker, research the effects of microplastics on animals and humans when we consume these microplastics. Dr. Walker, is no stranger to the ever-growing questions in microplastic research. Specializing in biodiversity conservation, industrial sustainability and environmental justice, Dr. Walker's research includes...
how plastics move through the ocean and atmosphere,
where plastics end up (e.g., plastic “hot spots” like the famous Pacific Garbage Patch), and
what will happen to animals who eat or breathe in pieces of plastics.
Living on the east coast of Canada, Dr. Walker knows well that east coast lobster and mussels are key species to Atlantic Canadian’s culture and economy. His team has found microplastics in both east coast lobster and mussels, but it is unclear what the presence of microplastics means for the future of these key species.
To answer these types of questions, scientists like Dr. Walker need more information and data.
Community scientists expand the search for plastic data
Have you ever wondered What can I do? You’ll be pleased to know that community scientists around Canada are helping the cause, and so can you!
Types of litter change from community to community. Dr. Walker explains that researchers and community scientists find different plastic pollution in various parts of Canada. In Nova Scotia, for example, he finds fishing gear and lobster traps, evidence of the east coast fishing industry.
Researchers and government agencies cannot reach the many corners of Canada but citizens can. Identifying the most common type of litter in each community provides extremely important data. We must understand what is littered to stop pollution at the source. “Community scientists can fill the data gaps that government and researchers cannot do themselves,” Dr. Walker.
“Community scientists can fill the data gaps that government and researchers cannot do themselves,” Dr. Walker.
Among lobster traps and fishing gear, Dr. Walker and community members in Nova Scotia, also find “Canada’s dirty dozen” on the coastline. Check out the list and see if any of the dirty dozen are common in your neighbourhood.
The public can inform policy and make real changes
Canada announced banning six single-use plastics in 2021. These six items were informed by the public, explains Dr. Walker. What we as community members find can influence regulation changes. “We need plastic legislation to get companies to make big changes, changes that we cannot as individuals,” he explains. Governments need to know what kinds of plastics are being found around Canada to create solutions.
To help ensure the six single-use plastics get banned in Canada, visit Oceana Canada and sign this petition.
This year, start a community science project of your own!
With all this talk of community science, why not connect with community members and start your own project in 2022?
The COVID-19 pandemic left many of us housebound and with an increased dependence on single-use plastics. In 2022, let’s start fresh. Start a clean-up or “Litter Audit” in your neighbourhood to connect with friends and contribute to science at the same time.
A “Litter Audit” will let scientists know what is in your neighbourhood.
There are many other ways to contribute as a community scientist:
Start a clean-up (Tip: connect with organizations like Surfrider to help get started!)
Advocate for plastic bans in Canada with Oceana
Collect data with Ocean Diagnostics
Dr. Walker offers extra 2022 intentions. He asks community members to bring our reusable mugs, water bottles and bags when out and about, and to use these reusable items enough times to offset the environmental cost of making them.
People have reverted to single-use plastics due to the pandemic, but Dr. Walker notes that there is evidence to suggest reusables are just as safe for everyday activities. Bring your reusable containers to restaurants and, when it is safe, try out a reusable mask this year!