Research | Queen’s University Canada

Diving into microplastics: Addressing our "wicked" waste problem

Diving into microplastics: Addressing our "wicked" waste problem

Catarina Chagas
February 26, 2020

Microplastics – They are in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we consume, and we are still learning about what this means for our health, the health of our environment, and our future. How do we tackle this “wicked” problem? Queen’s researcher Myra Hird believes the answer is in our own consumption habits.


Microplastics – They are in the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we consume, and we are still learning about what this means for our health, the health of our environment, and our future.

How do we tackle this “wicked” problem? Queen’s researcher Myra Hird believes the answer is in our own consumption habits.

Due to exposure and wear and tear, big plastics inevitably break down into smaller pieces. Microplastics are pieces of plastic that measure up to 5 millimetres on their longest dimension. (The definition includes nanoplastics, which are even tinier particles.) Hard to detect and hard to control, these pollutants have been proven, in controlled experiments, to harm both the environment and living creatures. So far, the high concentrations simulated in laboratories have not yet been found in nature. Yet, given the limitations of the current measurement methods and the fact that many human activities (agriculture, fishery, industry, and others) continue to release microplastics into the environment, this is no reason for relief.

Myra Hird, FRSC, is a professor in the School of Environmental Studies and a Queen’s National Scholar.
[Myra Hird pulling plastic wrap]

Tiny particles, big issue

Each piece of plastic you throw away is a potential source of microplastics. Despite all the effort you put in at home to separate your garbage, most plastics are not recycled – only 9% of plastics are recycled in Canada. The rest will most likely end up in a landfill, either in Canada or abroad, in one of the countries to where Canada exports waste, like Malaysia or the Philippines – where it might be openly dumped. As time goes by, wind, rain, and UV radiation will deteriorate the biggest pieces of plastic, releasing tiny particles that will spread to soil and water.

Of course, your personal plastic consumption is not the sole, or even the biggest, contributor to the global microplastics problem. As close to our daily lives as domestic waste is, it is only the tip of the plastic iceberg. Industrial and military waste can be even more concerning, especially when there are few data available about quantities, composition, and origin of the disposal and recycling efforts.

There are many reasons why plastics are not being completely recycled. Some are technical: because plastics are polymers and composed of a variety of substances, it is either hard or impossible to separate them into recyclable component parts. Also, there are economic reasons: sometimes there is simply no market for the recycled products, which makes recycling unprofitable in countries that have privatized waste management and recycling. On top of this, the recycling process itself can be harmful to the environment, as it generates waste that may be hazardous and, therefore, requires specific disposal, as well as energy, producing carbon emissions.

Waste as a social problem

Given these realities, how can we start tackling this issue? The answer may lie more in analyzing and changing our habits than in the science and technology of recycling. “The waste issues that we have aren't because we lack the technology to deal with them, but because we have organized our society in particular ways that have unintentionally led to this wicked waste crisis we find ourselves in,” says Myra Hird, professor in the School of Environmental Studies and Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University.

For instance," explains Hird, "nuclear power centres create electricity. They create power and they do it extremely efficiently compared to other means of energy generation, such as burning fossil fuels. But they create a waste problem that no country has solved."

Working on waste issues in the Canadian context for over a decade, Hird believes waste is, above all, a social problem. Of all the campaigns suggesting everybody should “reduce, reuse, recycle,” Hird says we have focused our efforts on the last pillar, which should actually be more like a last resort. Until we make such a change in mindset, we are unlikely to solve the threat that microplastics present both for the environment and for human health. “The evidence we have so far is that microplastics are increasing in both volume and distribution in Canada and globally,” Hird warns.

[Stylized image of waste]

Joint effort

Hird leads the Canada’s Waste Flow Project, which develops research on different aspects of waste management. She is passionate about the opportunities that come with looking at the waste problem from an interdisciplinary perspective. “I certainly have a much better grasp of what the opportunities and constraints of various technologies are, and how all of these technologies really strongly depend on social factors,” she says. Hird uses the example of landfills to articulate this point: “Landfills are only as robust as they are constructed, maintained, and cared for post-closure. That all depends on humans. So, it can be the most technologically sophisticated landfill in the world, but if it is not being managed appropriately, by human beings, on a day-to-day basis, it will fail. And it's thanks to world-expert engineers, such as Dr. Kerry Rowe in the Civil Engineering Department at Queen’s University, that I appreciate this.” 

Asked about current gaps in our knowledge about plastic pollution, Hird points out that natural scientists are concerned with better understanding the human health and environmental effects of various plastic types. On the other hand, “social scientists are primarily concerned with better understanding how government (at all levels), industry, business, consumers, and citizens interact in specific ways, such that plastics have become ubiquitous within our society," she explains. "Also, what steps might be usefully taken to find alternatives to plastics, including: refusing, reducing, reusing, and refurbishing?”

Queen's researcher Myra Hird wants us to rethink our production habits.
[Myra Hird]

Science in action

There is consensus across sectors that more research is required to fully understand the microplastics problem. But it is just as important to transform the new knowledge generated by science into practice. “We need to move quickly and effectively to respond to the threats that plastics pose to our human health and to the environment,” advocates Hird.

She is not alone. This emerging issue motivated G7 countries to organize scientific roundtables to discuss how to tackle microplastic pollution. An initial meeting was held in Washington, D.C., in Feb. 2019, with the presence of chief scientific advisors from the G7 countries and the European Union. 

On Oct. 14 and 15 2019, a subsequent meeting took place in Paris, where specialists from participating countries presented and discussed data and debated how to guide policy-making in this area.

Hird represented Canada at this recent meeting, together with Canada’s Chief Science Advisor (CSA), Dr. Mona Nemer and George Enei, CSA’s advisor and Senior Assistant Deputy Minister. 

Hird and the other Canadian scientists left Paris determined to work together in an interdisciplinary way and consider new policy adaptations, including Canada's announcement (Oct. 2020) that the country plans to ban single-use plastics by the end of 2021.  The scholars are currently in discussions to frame a viable project that will significantly increase our understanding of plastics, and make recommendations for regulator and policy change.

“It was a privilege to work amongst such a highly qualified national and international team of natural and social science researchers,” says Hird. She highlights the importance of connecting directly to decision and policy makers from Canada and the G7 countries: “This is an opportunity for us as a country. We can choose to lead the way, not only in researching microplastics, but also in regulating them, and coming up with practical policy that can really tackle this issue.”

Centres and Institutes

GeoEngineering Centre

Core research: 

The GeoEngineering Centre is a collaborative venture between 18 faculty members and approximately 100 graduate students and post-doctoral students led by Queen's University and the Royal Military College of Canada. Drawn from three different engineering departments at the two universities, the Centre's members are dedicated to innovation and advancement of knowledge in geotechnical, geohydrological, geochemical, geomechanical, and geosynthetics engineering.

Centres and Institutes

Beaty Water Research Centre

Core research: 

The Beaty Water Research Centre (BWRC) is an interdisciplinary centre dedicated to furthering its key pillars of research, education, and outreach around water-related issues. The BWRC fosters and supports activities under four themes: water governance, water use, water resources and water quality.