• Karly McMullen

How do Microplastics Enter the Environment?

Explore the mischievous ways microplastics flow into our environment through wastewater and how we can stop them at the source.


Even though you can’t see them, microplastics flow into the environment every day.

Professor Nathalie Tufenkji, PhD, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair and Professor at McGill University, gives us the breakdown on how microplastics enter our environment and the role we play to stop this pollutant at its source!



What are microplastics and nanoplastics?


Professor Nathalie Tufenkji defines microplastics as a diverse set of materials. “There are so many things that are microplastics. For example, when you drive your car down the road, the tire will wear and release small particles of tire and that is considered a microplastic. Your clothing that is made of potentially synthetic polymers such as polyester, acrylic and nylon can release small fibers and those are considered microplastics,” Prof. Tufenkji explains two common microplastics, but she says the list goes on.


“Some microplastics can be seen by the naked eye, but smaller microplastics can only be seen using a microscope. They can range from a few millimetres in size to a few micrometres.” One micrometre is 0.001 of a millimetre. In other words, very small.


Prof. Tufenkji also investigates the smaller end of the microplastic spectrum. The plastic particles we certainly cannot see with the naked eye: nanoplastics.


“Take a hair off your head and divide it by 1,000. That is about the size of a nanoplastic.”

“Take a hair off your head and divide it by 1,000. That is about the size of a nanoplastic.” Professor Tufenkji explains these nanoplastics are difficult to detect, but important, nonetheless. “If one microplastic breaks down into nanoplastics, you could end up with millions or billions of nanoplastics.”


Diverse microplastics are found in natural waters, oceans, rivers, sediment, on farms and in the air.



Where do microplastics and nanoplastics come from?


Professor Tufenkji explains that microplastics and nanoplastics can sneak past wastewater treatment facilities and flow into the environment. Through different steps of water treatment some microplastics are removed, but not all.



Professor Tufenkji and her team are making great strides in removing microplastics and nanoplastics from wastewater, but there is still progress to be made.


Prof. Tufenkji explains, “we know [microplastics] are there, but we need to know (1) do they have an impact, and (2) how can we control and reduce the release of microplastics into the environment?”



Do we contribute to the release of these particles in our day-to-day activities?


Chances are you do, but there is still time to make a change.


Synthetic material that goes down our sinks, toilets, shower drains and any outflow from our house can break down and potentially release microplastics into the wastewater pipeline. That water is then combined with wastewater from your neighbours and makes its way to the treatment plant, where some particles will inevitably break through.


Wastewater is not the only source of microplastics. Some fragile plastic goods in our houses break down and make their way into our drains, too! “We know that [even some] bulk products can break down into microplastics,” shares Professor Tufenkji. “Studies investigating microplastics in wastewater are finding quite a bit of polyethylene.”


When plastic products enter the Canadian environment, the cycles of freezing and thawing may expedite their breakdown into microplastics.


Located in Montreal, Quebec, a city with cold, snowy winters and blistering hot summers, Professor Tufenkji knows the freezing and thawing cycle well. Her team brings a unique Canadian climate perspective when considering the breakdown of plastics into microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment.


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks have been found throughout our neighbourhoods. Professor Tufenkji’s lab explored what happens to face masks when they are accidentally or intentionally disposed of in the environment. The team added water and simulated sunlight to the masks and found that each mask gave off a lot of plastic fibers.


With an estimated 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves used per month across the globe, Professor Tufenkji argues that we need to be very careful with our mask disposal to avoid a wave of microplastics entering our environment.



What are the impacts of microplastics in the environment?

“We are not sure of the impacts, but it is clearly an undesirable scenario,” says Professor Tufenkji.

“One of our questions is: as these microplastics and nanoplastics spread in the environment, is there a risk that they may become a more important pollutant?” says Professor Tufenkji.


To determine the answer, we need to ask even more questions. Professor Tufenkji outlines some of the very pressing questions currently captivating the world of microplastics research:

  • How does the human body process these chemicals, particles and material?

  • What is the potential effect of these diverse particles?

  • How does shape and size influence their effects?

  • Do the additives have different health effects?

  • Do we just eliminate these microplastics when we go to the bathroom?

Microplastics are so diverse. These distinct types of plastics will likely induce different effects, making it difficult to determine their impacts.

“At the end of the day, reducing [microplastics] at the source is a priority,” says Prof. Tufenkji.

Canadian scientists work hard to pinpoint key sources of microplastic pollution, but there are challenges. “One of the challenges with plastics is that it is made of carbon. There is a lot of carbon in soil. When microplastics or nanoplastics are released into the environment, it is like looking for a piece of hay in a haystack. We are not looking for a needle in a haystack, we are looking for a very specific piece of hay. You can imagine how difficult that is."



Prof. Tufenkji explains, “When we have better techniques and technologies that allow us to detect microplastics and nanoplastics in different environments, then we can address some of these questions.”


What can we do right now to tackle microplastics in our homes?


“One, relatively easy thing to implement is to reduce the use of single-use plastics. You can just imagine the number of single-use plastic bags, the number of single-use bottles, single-use plastic cutlery and plastic wrapping. I think that is something Canadians can do now to help protect their own environment,” says Professor Tufenkji.


“We are moving in the right direction..." - Professor Tufenkji.

“We are moving in the right direction. There is a lot of research happening... In the next decade we are going to see the emergence of new materials and new technologies to help us deal with plastic pollution. We are also seeing a shift in customer behaviour and consumer interest in the problem. I am optimistic that we are going to see improvements with respect to scaling back plastic pollution.”


We are optimistic too, Professor Tufenkji!


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