Plastics found in a manta trawl on the South Atlantic subtropical gyre plastics cruise in 2019, under supervision of Linda-Amaral-Zettler. Photo: Ethan Edson.

Background information on the project
In the era of increasing public awareness of climate change and environmental pollution, science is an important critical platform that can provide fundamental knowledge to help inform policy decisions regarding these large-scale challenges. This project investigates the origin, nature, transport and impact of nanoplastics, the hypothesized degradation products of aquatic plastic litter. Preliminary measurements visualize the existence of nanoplastics in the ocean, as well as in samples taken from laboratory-aged macroplastic. This first-ever visualization and molecular identification of individual plastic particles with sizes in the range of tens of nanometers was achieved by using a recently developed analytical method, called photo induced force microscopy (PiFM), a combination of atomic force microscopy and infrared spectroscopy.

State-of-the-art research methods 
To understand what nanoplastics are, a carefully selected set of state-of-the-art microscopy and spectroscopic methods including both more established methods and approaches novel to the field of studying nanoplastics will characterize their chemical composition, size and structure. Based on these results, an open access database of spectroscopy- and microscopy-derived fingerprints will be developed to facilitate the identification of nanoplastics from aquatic environments. With this newly acquired structural data, virtual particle tracking methods will enable tracking of plastic particle transport throughout the ocean thereby revealing where nanoplastics occur and how they get there. Study of the interrelationships between nanoplastics and aquatic and plastic-associated microorganisms will inform the ecological impacts of nanoplastics starting with the smallest forms of life. The mechanisms of plastic degradation will be investigated in parallel to understand the formation, origins, and fate of nanoplastics. This includes measuring the reactivity of nanoplastics under various reaction conditions, which will deepen our understanding of how they interact with the environment, especially in places where they accumulate. This project hopes to generate novel ideas for nanoplastics removal (under controlled settings) and breakdown in places of accumulation (in Nature under uncontrolled scenarios).

Fundamental knowledge of nanoplastics
To realize this interdisciplinary research project, an expert consortium with complementary expertise, bridging the fields of chemistry, physics, and biology has been assembled. The design of the research project ensures that the work packages of the individual consortium members have direct and immediate effects on each other, guaranteeing a coherent and synergistic outcome. In the short term, the project hopes to generate fundamental knowledge on the origin, structure, and fate of nanoplastics. Only when this essential, but fundamental step is taken, will the scientific community be able to propose adequate plans and policies for how to mitigate their eventual unwanted release, effects and perhaps even how to recycle or properly convert them for reuse.