Courtesy of Chelsea Rochman, University of Toronto

California Sea Grant and Ocean Protection Council administer $2 million in funding to improve microplastic understanding and management

Boyce Upholt

California Sea Grant, in partnership with the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC), will administer $2 million in funding for five research projects that will address microplastics in California.

“Microplastics are a growing threat to California’s communities and ecosystems,” said Shauna Oh, director of California Sea Grant. “We’re excited to be helping the state advance its understanding and pursue potential solutions through these projects.”

Pollution from microplastic particles — which are formally defined as those between one nanometer and five millimeters in size — is projected to increase in California in the coming years. Disadvantaged communities may face disproportionate exposure due to their proximity to manufacturing facilities and dense highways, both key sources of microplastic contamination. The small size of the particles means microplastics are easily carried into waterways; in the ocean, they can cause developmental anomalies, reproductive difficulties and increased mortality rates for marine life.

The five projects, which launch in October 2023 and are funded for up to two years, were selected through two research calls. The first call focused on research that will improve understanding of the sources of aquatic microplastic contamination and areas of ecological sensitivity. The second focused on an approach to stormwater treatment known as “low-impact development best management practices” (LID BMPs) — infrastructures like rain gardens and permeable pavements that can be built throughout an urban area to absorb and filter stormwater runoff. This call particularly sought projects that could inform the design and use of LID BMPs in disadvantaged communities through tangible recommendations.

OPC and California Sea Grant have partnered to address marine plastic pollution since 2018, through the California Ocean Litter Prevention Strategy. In 2022, OPC adopted the Statewide Microplastics Strategy, a comprehensive, prioritized research plan to better understand the sources and pathways of microplastics into the environment, identify solutions to prevent microplastic pollution and support the development of risk assessments for microplastics in California marine habitats. California Sea Grant contributed $412,000 toward the research projects, focused on the first research call, and OPC contributed $1.65 million for projects across both calls. California Sea Grant is leading the grant administration for all five projects.

“Microplastics are ubiquitous and persistent in the marine environment. These projects seek to increase understanding and inform effective strategies to address land-based microplastics,” said Kaitlyn Kalua, deputy director of OPC. “Together, these projects advance the state’s priorities to protect California’s coastal and marine ecosystems from ongoing microplastic pollution.”

See more details about the funded projects below.



Investigation to assess clothes dryers as a source of microplastic pollution and inform solutions

Project Lead: Diana Lin (San Francisco Estuary Institute)

Co-PIs: Rebecca Sutton (San Francisco Estuary Institute), Monica Arienzo (Desert Research Institute), Lisa Erdle (The 5 Gyres Institute)

Summary: Electronic clothes dryers may be a primary source of plastic microfiber pollution — which constitutes the most common form of microplastic pollution globally and is the dominant form of microplastic ingested by humans and wildlife. By examining dryers in various settings in the San Francisco Bay Region, this project will provide the first estimates of real-world dryer microplastic emission rates and assess whether secondary filters offer a viable solution for reducing pollution.

Plastics Past and Present: Understanding historical trends of microplastic consumption in California marine food webs to better inform future marine management

Project Lead: William Ludt (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles)

Co-PIs: Aaron Celestian (Natural History Museum of Los Angeles)

Summary: This project will leverage specimen collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County to develop a comprehensive understanding of microplastic pollution in California and how it has varied across both space and time. This study will be the first of its kind in the Pacific and will establish a baseline for informing existing and future management decisions in California. 

From watershed to whales: Tracking the source and transport of microplastics in the greater Monterey Bay region to inform risk assessments

Project Lead: Matthew Savoca (California Marine Sanctuary Foundation)

Summary: This study will quantify the movement of microplastics within the Monterey Bay watershed and determine the major local sources of microplastic pollution, filling a geographical gap in research between the San Francisco Bay and Southern California Bight region.



Field monitoring of microplastics loading and accumulation in low impact development-best management practices

Project Lead: Rebeka Sultana (California State University, Long Beach)

Co-PIs: Elizabeth Fassman-Beck (Southern California Coastal Water Research Authority), Sonya Lopez (California State University, Los Angeles)

Summary: This project aims to evaluate design and maintenance criteria for low-impact development best management practices. Few previous studies have analyzed the extent to which LID BMPs can capture and treat stormwater runoff and manage microplastic pollution. Through field monitoring and engagement with stormwater regulatory committees and permittees, this research will help fill data gaps needed to develop recommendations for solutions to mitigate microplastic pollution from urban runoff.

Design factors affecting microplastic retention, removal, and generation in structural best management

Project Lead: Sanjay K. Mohanty (University of California, Los Angeles)

Summary: This project will examine how infrastructures meant to control stormwater runoff — in particular “infiltration” structures, like rain gardens and permeable pavement — retain and release microplastic pollution. The researchers will examine both design elements and factors in the surrounding catchment area, and aim to inform both the design and operation of infrastructure and the development of management strategies that effectively reduce microplastic pollution, thereby improving community health.