Plastic is undoubtedly a transformational material. Its properties can be engineered to suit the application, it is low-cost, and it is capable of being molded in virtually any form. As a result, the production of plastics has skyrocketed. Correspondingly, plastic waste is considered a rapidly increasing environmental problem. While produced and used mostly on land, plastic waste is reaching the ocean in ever-increasing amounts. A recent study suggests that by 2050, plastic could outweigh fish in the sea. Organisms at every level of the marine food web are exposed and affected by this plastic by entanglement, ingestion, or exposure to chemical additives. Consequently, humans can also be affected by marine plastic pollution through their consumption of contaminated seafood.

Plastics are generally designed to be durable, stable, and inert. However, in the ocean, exposure to the UV rays of the sun and the harsh environment of saltwater breaks down some plastics and produces toxic styrene by-products and BPA. Other plastics are broken down into smaller and smaller fragments through mechanical means. Once they have reached less than 5 mm in diameter, they called microplastics.

Studies show that the majority of plastics found in the ocean are microplastics. However, the distribution and quantity of microplastics remain uncertain due to the scarcity of data. All of the known microplastic characterization studies identify plastics using a complicated, involved laboratory procedure. What is needed is an autonomous instrument to sample, process, and characterize microplastics. With such an instrument, we can better understand the magnitude of the microplastic problem. Additionally, it would aid us in monitoring the effectiveness of management systems and regulations that may be put in place to combat the microplastic problem.

Blue microplastic filament, Moss Landing 2019 (~150 um long)

Blue microplastic filament, Moss Landing 2019 (~150 um long)

With this ultimate goal in mind, Jupiter Research Foundation is currently investigating techniques to create an autonomous instrument to identify microplastic. Once the sensor is available, it will be deployed in a large-scale survey to increase the quantity of high-quality data for the distribution and abundance of microplastics.


For more about this project, please contact us at Microplastics@jupiterfoundation.org