WINDSOR, ONT. -- A team of University of Windsor researchers have received $1 million in funding to spearhead a project aimed at solving the mystery of where microplastics originate and how they travel, to curtail the global pollution problem.

“Even if we stop putting plastics into the environment today, those plastics there right now would continue breaking down for tens, hundreds of years,” says Dr. Jill Crossman, project coordinator and professor at UWindsor’s School of Environment.

Microplastics are minuscule pieces of plastic that are essentially found everywhere, from your toothbrush, to your food packaging and inside our oceans.

“They are being found in such remote environments, so far from any obvious sources,” says Crossman. “Microplastics have now even been found in the Arctic and Antarctica. A lot of this is due to atmospheric transmission.”

To get a clear picture of where microplastics end up, the scientists will be visiting industrial, agricultural and urban sites throughout the year to study the key sources, transportation processes, and pathways of microplastics in Ontario.

Dr. Scott Mundle, researcher with the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research is developing a new way to track using pollutants to their sources using mass spectrometry methods.

Mundle’s technique involves creating a database of chemical signatures for microplastics, each with a unique “fingerprint” to help identify its original source.

“It’s the same as a police fingerprint database,” explains Mundle. “When we sample microplastics in the environment, we’ll be able to use fingerprints against a fingerprints database to understand where that’s coming from.”

The project team also includes members from the University of Toronto, Trent University, Western University, Wilson Analytical, Environment Canada, Ontario’s Ministry of Environment and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority.

Dr. Patricia Corcoran, professor at Western University’s Department of Earth Science is assisting the project by collecting water, air and soil samples along the Thames River.

“The issue with microplastics is that because they are so tiny they can affect a greater number of organisms in the environment than the large plastics,” Corcoran says studies have shown plastic pollution can harm the fertility, growth and survival of marine life.

She explains increasing knowledge and understanding the source of microplastics will help governments create effective regulatory policies.

“We could speak with policy makers and make them more informed. Potentially there could be some regulation that’s developed in order to help this pollution problem.”

The program is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Plastic Science for a Cleaner Future program.