“Actions against plastic pollution at whatever level will only work if the full range of technologies and technological solutions are being applied,” said Martin Krause, Director of Programme Support and Coordination at the IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation. “This includes nuclear technologies that are meant to complement traditional approaches.” NUTEC Plastics uses nuclear methods to precisely track and quantify the movement and impacts of microplastics and co-contaminants.
Nuclear and isotopic techniques that are used for monitoring purposes, such as infrared or Raman spectroscopy, can be used to characterize plastic particles and to understand global pollution, said Marc Metian, Research Scientist in the IAEA Radioecology Lab. In addition to monitoring, radio tracer techniques are used to assess how the health of marine organisms is affected by the presence of microplastic, Metian said.
Hideshige Takada, Professor of Environmental Chemistry of Organic Micropollutants at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, explained that nuclear technology was used to determine that marine plastic pollution began to appear in the Asian region in the 1960s and 1970s. “This means that we can categorically link marine plastics pollution to the onset of our mass plastic consumption,” Takada said. Furthermore, “based on our measurement of smaller microplastics – 300 microns – the levels of microplastic pollution in the water and sediments are close to or even exceeding the threshold concentration that causes adverse effects to marine organisms.”
While nuclear technology provides the means to gather data, one of the main challenges in microplastics research is the lack of an aligned methodology for data collection. Data and science-based information is essential to guide decision making. “At times, we could not intercompare our results, as each country in the region used different sampling strategies and analytical methods,” said Ana Carolina Ruiz-Fernandez, Researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences and Limnology, National Autonomous University of Mexico. In the Latin America and the Caribbean region, experts founded the Marine-Coastal Research Network of Latin America and the Caribbean (REMARCO) in 2016 to address the region’s marine challenges and to effectively transfer research results to decision makers. The IAEA hosted the side event at the STI Forum in cooperation with REMARCO.
For more than 15 years, the IAEA has supported REMARCO through technical cooperation projects, by facilitating the exchange of information, capacity building, as well as the standardization of data collection methods. “Using sampling kits and harmonized procedures developed by IAEA and REMARCO experts, 15 countries in the region have launched new national microplastic monitoring programmes,” Ruiz-Fernandez said.
Monitoring plastic pollution and the data collected are indispensable to determine the trends of plastic particles in sediment, water and biota in the ocean and to develop informed decision making. “Our tools allow us to identify the distribution, size and toxicity of marine plastics, but we are dealing with a lot of unknowns,” said Florence Descroix-Comanducci, Director of the IAEA Marine Environment Laboratories. “The IAEA is helping to fill knowledge gaps by forging new partnerships, building national capacities and by supporting the establishment of a global network of marine environment laboratories with the capacity to monitor and assess marine plastics pollution.”
Learn more about the IAEA Marine Environment Laboratories.