General Norwegian researchers produce microplastics to reduce microplastics

(This article is an adapted translated version of an article about EUROqCHARM originally published by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation - NRK)

Norwegian researchers are involved in a huge project aiming to get a better overview of microplastic presence in nature. As part of the project, the researchers must make their own microplastic.

researchers exploring
PHOTO: SALT.NU

We hope that this work can provide better general knowledge about plastic pollution, and therefore better, more effective, and targeted environmental policies that actually contribute to reduce the amounts of plastics in the nature, says Joan Fabres, senior researcher at Salt.

That is why there is a lot of research being carried out about plastics in the environment all over the world. Research covers everything from how much plastic is out there, where the plastic comes from, to what we can do to reduce its amounts.

And the methods used are many, which results in a large margin of uncertainty in the results.

"Use of many different methods makes it difficult to both compare and understand the results. In addition, we see a great need for this type of knowledge. And often, research results will be used to answer questions that may be more ambitious than what the research was set off to answer", says Fabres

Therefore, SALT and several other Norwegian institutions are now involved in the EUROqCHARM project. The largest of its kind in the world.

The goal is to find common methods for measuring, registering, and monitoring microplastics in nature.

We hope that this work can provide better general knowledge about plastic pollution, and therefore better, more effective, and targeted environmental policies that actually contribute to reduce the amounts of plastics in the nature.

Joan Fabres, senior researcher at SALT

Methods from 2500 studies reviewed

The methods are used to measure microplastics in water, the seabed, on land and in animals.

"But all these areas require their own methods. We cannot use the same method to measure plastic in water as when we are going to measure plastic in, for example, sea birds", says Joan Fabres.

Therefore, the path to the final objective is long and demanding.

As part of the project, the researchers have compared around 2,500 academic articles about plastic pollution. Furthermore, they have taken a closer look at the most common methods for measuring plastics and microplastics in nature.

"We have mapped the methods, and assessed the analytical strengths and weaknesses", Fabres explains; "Based on this work, the researchers hope to find the best measurement methods that can be used in the future. They have also made their own microplastic. It is important to emphasize that this is not microplastic we will release into the nature".

Closing up to publishing: Joan Fabres at SALT says that the first results from EUROqCHARM will be available during the spring. PHOTO: SALT.NU
The microplastic is made using extremely low temperatures in a special machine. VIDEO: NIVA.NO
This way they can make pieces of plastic that are just as small as they want. VIDEO: NIVA.NO
fragments of plastic
The microplastic is used to make "artificial" samples, which can strengthen the methods the researchers are developing. PHOTO: NIVA.NO

These samples may, for example, consist of water samples containing a certain amount of microplastic. When researchers develop new measurement methods for microplastics in water, they can compare the results from the real samples with the "artificial" samples.

"It will give us the opportunity to check how robust the methods we recommend for further use are", Fabres explains.

researchers exploring at the coast
OUT IN THE FIELD: Researchers from Salt research both micro- and macroplastics in nature. PHOTO: SALT.NU

Research Council: - Very important work

By finding common methods for measuring plastic in the sea, it can contribute to better environmental policy.

This is the opinion of both Joan Fabres and Mari Sundli Tveit, head of the Norwegian Research Council: "I think this project can be of great importance", Tveit stresses.

Plastic pollution is becoming an increasing problem. Both in the sea, the earth, the air and in the food we eat. To understand how plastic affects nature and us, it is urgent to develop better methods for monitoring and measuring the plastic that surrounds us. To be able to do this, we need projects like this.

Joan Fabres in SALT also believes the project can make it easier to prioritize where we need to implement measures first.

"Common methods give us a chance to compare the situation today with the situation in ten years' time. It can also help us compare status in different geographical areas, so that we can prioritize measures where it is most urgent", he says.

World-class Norwegian research

The first recommendations will be published in the spring. But EUROqCHARM is not the only project involving Norwegian researchers trying to find common measurement methods for plastic in nature. The Arctic Environmental Monitoring Program (AMAP) hosts another such project, focusing on the Arctic.

Great with several projects
Fortunately, there are several projects that work to develop measurement methods for plastic in nature. In research and development, it is always an advantage that more people work in parallel with the same issues. It will be able to give us more and broader knowledge, says Mari Sundli Tveit, leader of the Norwegian Research Council. PHOTO: NORWEGIAN RESEARCH COUNCIL

The results from AMAP will be incorporated into EUROqCHARM, says Joan Fabres.

Mari Sundli Tveit in the Research Council believes that it is a hallmark of quality that Norwegian researchers contribute so much to this type of work: "It shows that we have very many good researchers in many different fields in this country. Environment and climate are fields in which researchers from Norwegian institutions are amongst the world’s best. It is important that research institutions participate in such projects to solve the great challenges we face. It also is important to build up even better research competence in Norway, and to create new, green jobs".

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Joan Fabres