Canadian Consulting Engineer

Microscopic plastics ending up in Canada’s waterways

March 24, 2015

Engineers of wastewater treatment plants may eventually have to add new processes to deal with plastic microbeads and other minute plastic fibres that we are flushing down the drain.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo have just published a review study on the presence of these substances in the Great Lakes. Meanwhile an NDP Member of Parliament, Megan Leslie, is calling on the federal government to list micro plastics as a toxic substance.

Microscopic plastic beads are found in cosmetics such as facial scrubs and body washes, while plastic fibres are washed out from synthetic fabrics in household laundry. The particles end up in the wastewater stream and have been found in six out of seven sewage treatment plants in New York State. Uncontrolled, the particles flow into waterways and the Great Lakes.

There they accumulate with other larger pieces of plastic debris which can also break down over time into microscopic pieces through abrasion. The researchers say the beads and microscopic plastic act like sponges for some pollutants. They can persist for 1,000 years and are ingested by aquatic organisms like fish and shellfish.


Philippe Van Cappellen, Canada Excellence Research Chair and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Waterloo, headed up the team of researchers who produced the report, which is the first comprehensive assessment of the plastics problem in the Great Lakes. The team’s article appeared this month in the open source publication, the Journal of Great Lakes Research. Their research combined university research studies with ground-based observations by volunteers who clean up beaches.

Van Cappellen said that Canada needs to be more aggressive in dealing with plastic pollution in water bodies: “Canada needs to step up to the plate and take action. Both the Europeans and Americans are proposing legislation to deal with the problem. Canada should follow their lead.”

Water treatment plants are already contemplating how to deal with other potential contaminants that are byproducts of our daily lives,  such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products and other endocrine disrupting substances, known as PPCPs.

To read the University of Waterloo announcement, click here.




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