Researchers in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Biology, and Communication collaborated on strategies for analyzing and controlling microplastic pollution as part of this project.  Partnering with community organizations and leaders in Pontiac and Williamston, Michigan, the scientific team tested new ideas and developed tools for use.

Sensor technology 

Microplastics in the environment can be detected and identified by analyzing Raman spectra created using a laser beam. This project developed a Raman sensor prototype designed for microplastic monitoring in water. Together with the sensor development, the project team cataloged an extensive library of Raman spectra from weathered and post-consumer plastic samples collected from the environment in Michigan and Alabama. Deep machine learning algorithms were developed to train these Raman spectra for more accurate identification of plastic types. Researchers can upload their Raman spectra using this online tool and receive a comparison of their sample results with known plastics in the library.  Example images of the sampled plastics, Raman spectra, and a training manual for experimental design and analysis are also available on the Sensor Technology website. Please contact us if you would like to be an early reviewer or adopter of these tools and products.

The project Advisory Board reviewed this progress at their November 2023 meeting, summarized in the meeting notes here:

November 2023 Microplastics Advisory Board Meeting Notes (print only)

Look for these sensor-related products in the near future:

  • Guidebook to microplastics sensor design
  • Function and data analysis
  • Library of Raman spectra for scientific use
  • Improved online tool for Raman spectra analysis

Environmental monitoring

Plastic litter becomes microplastic pollution when it breaks down. Wastewater and stormwater discharge can deposit microplastics in surface water such as rivers and lakes that may be a source of drinking water for downstream communities. Research provides insight into microplastics monitoring and mitigation. Our studies include:

  • Analysis of microplastic size and chemical composition in two Detroit, Michigan, green infrastructure stormwater basins, and testing of microplastic transport through soil columns in an analogous laboratory setting to estimate microplastics exposure risk through soil migration.
  • Litter collected from newly-constructed stormwater bioswales in Pontiac, Michigan, and the weight of the captured plastic analyzed to estimate the efficiency of green stormwater infrastructure for preventing contamination of stormwater by microplastics over time. GSI studies will be ready soon.
  • The removal efficiency of micro- and nano-plastics (180 nm125 μm) during drinking water treatmentparticularly coagulation/flocculation with sedimentation (CFS) and granular filtrationand interactions between biofilms and microplastics and the consequential impact on treatment efficiency (Science of the Total Environment, Removal efficiency of micro- and nano-plastics (180nm125μm) during drinking water treatment)
  • Occurrence, fate, and transport of microplastics in water and wastewater treatment processes
  • Study results; Method comparisons

Materials flow analysis modeling

The goal of this work was to make the occurrence and economic cost of waste plastics more transparent. Environmental emission sources and pathways for macro- and micro-plastic pollution were analyzed to inform waste prevention strategies. The model evaluated environmental emissions of waste plastics from material production through waste disposal processes for Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS).  Manufacturing was categorized into the sectors of transportation, packaging, building and construction, furnishing and furniture, electrical and electronics, consumer and institutional products, industrial/machinery, coating and ink, and others. The final online tool supports decision-making about plastic use targeted toward reducing plastic waste, both to reduce environmental impact and to inform users about market-based incentives for waste recapture.

  • Materials Flow Analysis Study results; guidebook for analysis methods

Risk communication 

Microplastics pollution is a rapidly growing concern, making research important about how communities perceive the associated environmental and health risk. Our theoretical framework is based on the study of resilience in social-ecological systems, an interdisciplinary concept integrating crisis and disaster management, ecological sciences, resource management, psychology, and communication.  Community collaboration was achieved through focus groups in 2019 on microplastics risks that are not yet well understood and for which information is limited. This study catalogs a variety of responses to real or perceived threats, the institutional and behavioral conditions and context for those responses, and recommendations for effective public engagement strategies. Focus group study available soon.

  • Risk Communication - Study results