Plastic items litter a beach as a storm cloud rolls in
Success story

Is It Raining Plastic?

We need more research to understand the effects of microplastics on our fresh water—and find solutions, quickly. That's where our team of scientists come in.

By Michael Rennie on July 24, 2020

Plastics are everywhere. Microplastics—those tiny particles the size of a sesame seed or smaller—have been found on top of mountains; at the bottom of oceans; in rivers and lakes; and in whales, birds, and fish.

It isn’t too difficult to imagine how all that plastic ends up in our bodies of fresh water. Research has shown as much as 75% of it comes from the disintegration of larger consumer products made of plastic—such as bottles, bags, and fishing gear.

Synthetic clothing such as fleece is another culprit, as are the microbeads found in some health and beauty products (recently banned by the United States and Canada).

Colourful discarded plastic containers and bags

Most microplastics come from the disintegration of larger consumer products. (Photo: curtoicurto)

But even though we know there is too much plastic where it doesn’t belong, there is a lot we still don’t know.

For example, what impacts do these plastics have on living organisms? Are plastic particles vectors for other contaminants? Do plastics build up in ecosystems? Can they travel through the air? And, given that we are all likely using more plastics due to COVID-related measures, what lasting impact will that have?

We need more research, including on real living freshwater ecosystems, to discover how big a problem microplastics really are—and how we can fix them.

That's exactly what makes our Experimental Lakes Area in Canada’s pristine boreal forest so unique and perfect for this whole-lake approach to experimentation.

The 58 lakes and their watersheds that make up the world's freshwater laboratory are at the top of the watershed and are not fed by any significant upstream sources. This means researchers can monitor the air and water in and around the lakes to determine how much plastic pollution already exists in remote lakes.

It also means that with a proposed whole-lake experiment (in this case, by carefully and safely adding microplastics and closely monitoring the ecosystem), we will better understand the impacts on the whole lake and food web that it supports. 

Scientists work in the open to measure and monitor fish

Scientists at the Experimental Lakes Area study all aspects of the ecosystem—from the atmosphere to fish populations. (Photo: Lauren Hayhurst)