A long way to go: pinning down the environmental impact of microplastic is no simple matter. First, the researchers have to agree on a standardised method of measuring microplastics, says the lead researcher in Aquateam COWI, Eilen Arctander Vik.
A graphic example comes from one of the tunnels they have examined thus far. This work was carried out in collaboration with Nye Veier (‘New Roads’), NIBIO and Aalborg University in connection with studies conducted by Nye Veier to check the effectiveness of the new cleaning system in the tunnel. The recipient is sensitive, and a detailed monitoring programme is under way.
“Among other things, we spent four hours filtering 3,000 litres of water flushed out of Bamble tunnel, and still we collected almost no microplastic particles. We are talking about very low concentrations of extremely small particles, so you need a lot of sample material or analytical methods that can detect very small particles, down to 1 micron,” says Arctander Vik.
Growing demand for microplastic research
Microplastics have been high on the agenda in the media and with the authorities in recent years. Arctander Vik is also seeing increased interest in Aquateam COWI’s expertise within the field. The researchers’ microplastics portfolio is growing.
The first projects involving analyses of microplastics were initiated with funding from the Norwegian Retailers' Environment Fund, and led to collaboration with Aalborg University (AAU) and Nye Veier. Nine months later, a research project kicked off to study microplastic from roads, in collaboration with the Norwegian Public Roads Administration. Last out of the blocks is a 3-year R&D project for which Aquateam COWI has received a grant from the Research Council of Norway, together with NTNU, AAU and Nye Veier. This will examine surface water from roads and tunnel cleaning water in several of Nye Veier’s new and existing facilities, and the plan is to develop new cleaning methods. COWI is also working on a project to analyse microplastics in house dust and microplastic levels in Norwegian rivers.
Looking for an answer to the riddle of microplastics
Both the R&D project for the Norwegian Public Roads Administration and the Research Council project will be working on risk assessment methods for microplastics, an area where there is now extensive research going on in the EU.
“There is a lot of interest in this type of research right now. As things stand, it is very expensive to get microplastic analyses that you can rely on. These are restricted to a few experts and laboratories that have the equipment to measure these small concentrations, and these can easily turn into bottlenecks in the research process.”