What is a pre-production plastic pellet?
There are many sources of plastic pollution, some of which are not your typical bottle or straw. One less familiar source of plastic pollution is pre-production plastic pellets. Plastic pellets, typically characterized by their distinct spherical/cylindrical shape and small size (2-5 mm), are the foundation of everyday plastic products. During plastic production, plastic pellets are melted down and then molded to form the desired product.
Unfortunately, because of their small size and lightweight nature, plastic pellets are often lost to the environment during day-to-day business operations, including plastic pellet production, transport, and storage. When coupled with precipitation events, plastic pellets are then swept into waterways through runoff from stormwater drains. Without proper containment strategies, these plastic pellets find their way into aquatic ecosystems and contribute to the accumulating plastic pollution.
A considerable number of Canadian plastics-related companies are located in Ontario. As a result, many studies have documented the presence of plastic pellets on Canadian shorelines and in tributaries, especially in the Great Lakes region. In our own work, we have demonstrated a positive correlation between the presence of plastics-related companies and the number of plastic pellets found in the environment (to read this study, click here).
In collaboration with the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada and Enviropod International, we started Operation Sweep the Creek – a three-phase project designed to address the problem of plastic pellet pollution at the source.
2019 – 2020: Operation Sweep the Creek 1.0
In the summer of 2019, we quantified and characterized plastic pellets in Mimico Creek – a Toronto watershed with multiple plastics-related companies situated upstream. We then collaborated with industry stakeholders to share our findings and discuss best practices for managing plastic pellets at facilities (to read this study, click here).
Through Operation Sweep the Creek 1.0 we demonstrated:
- Collaboration between different stakeholders, i.e., academia, government, and industry, can inform sustainability stewardship.
- Pre-production plastic pellets in Mimico Creek, with an increase after a storm event when plastic pellets would most likely be swept off the land and into the watershed.
- The success of a small outreach program in initiating a case study with a plastics-related company to test the effectiveness of a containment strategy called the LittaTrap – a promising solution to stop plastic pellet loss at the source.
2020 – 2021: Operation Sweep the Creek 2.0
In early 2020, we installed five LittaTraps in stormwater drains at the Polytainers Inc. facility in Etobicoke, Ontario. The LittaTrap, manufactured by Enviropod International, is a low-cost mesh basket designed to sit inside stormwater drains and capture plastic carried by precipitation from entering the stormwater system. After installation, we collected and characterized the captured plastic pellets on four occasions during an eight-month period (to read this study, click here).
Through Operation Sweep the Creek 2.0 we demonstrated:
- The five LittaTraps deployed at the Polytainers Inc. facility successfully diverted nearly 35,000 plastic pellets from Mimico Creek over a period of 289 days.
- Stormwater drain inserts, like the LittaTrap, are an effective and practical solution for preventing plastic pellet loss at the source.
2022 – 2023: Operation Sweep the Creek 3.0
Now that we know the LittaTrap is an effective solution for preventing plastic pellet loss at the facility scale, the next step is to test its impact at the watershed scale. In the summer of 2022, we plan to install multiple LittaTraps at several plastics-related companies situated in a Toronto watershed. During the summer, we will collect the plastic pellets captured by the LittaTraps as well as sample the local downstream waterway for plastic pellets before and after installation.
Our goal is to determine if we can see a measurable decrease in plastic pellet pollution at the watershed scale using this simple, easy-to-implement, and replicable solution. In the end, we hope Operation Sweep the Creek 3.0 will motivate and inform provincial, national and global regulations to put an end to pre-production plastic pellet pollution and ultimately help improve Great Lakes’ water quality.
Operation Sweep the Creek 1.0 was led by Nicholas Tsui, an MSc in Sustainability Management graduate from the Institute for Management and Innovation at the University of Toronto Mississauga. He previously studied at McMaster University and received his undergraduate degree in Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, with a specialized focus in behavioural ecology in 2018. While Nick graduated from U of T in 2020 and is now working in the carbon policy space, he is still actively interested in microplastics – particularly around policy in industrial microplastics management.
Operation Sweep the Creek 3.0 is led by Eden Hataley, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough, studying plastic pollution policy and management. She is also a member of the pELAstics Project. Eden received her undergraduate degree in environmental chemistry and master’s degree in environmental studies from Queen’s University, where she investigated the potential role of microplastics in influencing the environmental fate of waterborne toxins produced by cyanobacteria.
This project is in collaboration with Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada and Enviropod International, with support from Community Matters Toronto.