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UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO STUDENT CREATES SOFTWARE TO MEASURE MICROPLASTICS
By Suzanne Forcese
Microfibres are among the most common plastic debris found in a diversity of habitats globally, affecting many different ecosystems from the Arctic to the seafloor to wildlife. They are also found in our seafood and our drinking water. Washing machines are the source point for these microfibers as tiny plastic threads released during the washing of synthetic textiles end up in our wastewater treatment plants (which are unsuccessful in their removal) and finally into our waterways and oceans. Up to 40% of these microfibers enter aquatic habitats and are being consumed by the phytoplankton and up throughout the entire food web.
One PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo decided she needed to make a difference. WaterToday spoke with Lauren Smith, who is not only working in the lab to solve the microplastics problem but is also the CEO of a start-up company Polygone Technologies that she co-founded with her partner, PhD candidate, Nicole Balliston.
“I never dreamed I would be doing this,” Smith told WT “I started out in Psychology, but then I took a few environmental studies courses just before my Masters Degree and the whole issue of climate change made me realize I had to do something.”
Smith who grew up on Lake St. Clair was always sensitive to the discussions regarding the health of Lake Erie. “I love water. I need to be a water communicator.”
Smith’s research began in the area of behavior changes in encouraging people to protect their homes from flooding. “I became one of Dr. Sara Wolfe’s students and my direction shifted to microplastics.
“We started looking at different companies solving issues for the Great Lakes. It’s a big problem but not much is being done. Synthetic materials are in our water. We looked for a way to stop this at source,” Smith told WT.
“Knowing that the source point is washing machines we began by capturing microplastics with filters that we installed in our machines.” Smith soon discovered however that the process of removing the microplastics, counting the fibres by hand, measuring and quantifying them was not only laborious and time-consuming but also unreliable. “The contaminates are so small and there are so many variables that make it difficult to measure them by weight. Such things as the humidity level in the lab would skew results.”
Smith soon realized she could contribute more to the research by tackling the bigger problem. Finding an easier way to measure the microplastics. “There was some software out there for measuring e-coli bacteria for example but nothing to measure microplastics.” It was a challenge that Smith soon overcame. Now with a provision patent filed, she has created (together with her partner) a method that is reliable and easily affordable to calculate the number and type of microplastics in any given sampling. Smith is hoping that companies will take this
device to the next level by including the percentage of microplastics on their labeling. “Just like food and beverages are required to indicate the ingredients on their labels I would like to see the similar regulations applied to microplastic content –or lack of.”
The business side of things has taken another interesting journey. “Polygone Technologies provides microplastic detection and certification services for beverage producers. We are currently working on a pilot project with a local brewery. We decided to start with breweries because generally they are more into natural products.”
Smith starts with a plastic audit simply by taking a bottle or can off the store shelf, measuring the microplastic content and reporting back to the company. Then a visit to the brewery to look for sources of contamination. “We provide fast, affordable detection. We offer to do more testing to see where the source is and make specific recommendations to mitigate the amount of microplastics in the finished product. That could mean filtering the water source, changing the holding container, or looking at behavior change – plastics in the uniforms for example. We also provide a media kit to the brewery and participate in promoting the company by designating a Gold Standard.” Moving forward, Smith hopes to include other breweries, wineries, and juice companies in removing microplastics from their products.
What’s next on Smith’s radar? “I’m working on the international patent for our microplastic detection device, working on publications about water, and encouraging more women to take power into their own hands whether it be in research, policy making, or any kind of leadership that helps our world reach a better place.” After her PhD requirements are completed, Smith plans to become more active in water communication through advocacy, helping companies understand water problems and marketing ways to instigate positive change.
Smith also has deep concerns about the bottled water industry on two counts. “The microplastics that are in the environment through the single use plastic in bottled water has to change. If it were up to me, I would say NO to bottled water. Of course, it does have a place, in emergency situations, but perhaps the packaging could change.”
The other disturbing fact Smith points out is in policy. “We have to have a change – stricter limits on how much water a company can take from communities.” Nestlé, for example has exploited the water resources of communities even when they are experiencing drought, and paying very little for the extraction of valuable groundwater. The company has taken 1 billion litres of water on expired permits in Aberfoyle, Ontario. “This has to stop.”
Smith reiterates as the Water Communicator that she is, “I want to be a role model, especially for other young women, to know they can take power into their own hands.”
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