Big ambitions to curb microplastic pollution

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As Greg Madejski charts the course for Parverio, the startup he launched less than a year ago, he wants to begin by telling New York what’s in its drinking water. The fledgling firm aims to raise $40,000 through a Kickstarter campaign by the end of January to create a microplastic atlas.

Parverio, which grew out of research at the University of Rochester’s Nano Membrane Research Group, hopes to learn the extent of the state’s exposure to the pollutant, running more than 300 tests to uncover regions of concern. Then, the company will use the information to create an atlas with an open-source database for researchers and information for participants to raise awareness about microplastics.

If this model is successful, Madejski plans to expand such testing to the nation. The campaign so far has raised more than $11,200.

Founded in April, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Monroe County, Parverio has developed a microplastics detection technique to tackle the problem of an emerging pollutant. A UR researcher, Madejski left the institution in August to focus on his startup, which employs two people. He retains a visiting scientist position at the university.

Tiny trouble

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that have made their way into the environment. A fragment that measures less than 5 millimeters in length, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Chemicals Agency, these particles are ubiquitous.

A 2019 study estimates that per-capita annual microplastics consumption ranges from 39,000 to 52,000 particles, depending on an individual’s age and gender. These estimates grow higher when inhalation is brought into the picture. (Microplastics is a thin dust in the environment.) While these estimates vary depending on research study parameters, scientists warn these numbers are likely to be much higher. In its Kickstarter campaign, Parverio points to yet another estimate: roughly 450,000 microplastic particles are ingested a year, with some 10,000 absorbed in the gut. Researchers are still studying the impact of microplastics on health.

“People just kind of assume that whatever they’re drinking is clean,” Madejski says. “We took a glass of water from the office tap and found microbeads and microfibers and other bits of plastic debris.”

Typically, microplastic debris is analyzed by floating it off in a column of salt water, capturing it on a surface using tweezers to categorize shapes and sizes of the particles.

“These are millimeter-type sizes. That doesn’t really work as you get down to the micro level,” Madejski says. “The micron-size particulate, you can’t manipulate that with tweezers. So, we had to figure out better ways to capture and then count all this little debris.”

A solution to test and identify 

A biomedical and microelectronic engineer by training, Madejski applies machine-learning algorithms to teach and train pixel classifiers to create representations of different objects and  images. Parverio is building a large library of various kinds of debris to become more efficient at classifying the particles. 

The company collaborates with SiMPore, another local business with UR research roots. SiMPore develops and manufactures silicon-based membranes for biomedical and material science applications. 

“We have negotiated with SiMPore for a license to use their nanomembrane chips to really efficiently concentrate microdebris in a single spot and planarize and that makes it a lot easier to see, observe and then characterize,” Madejski says. “I’ve combined that technology with my own machine-learning algorithms to automatically count and segment and figure out what kinds of debris are there.”

Parverio is taking advantage of one of the primary value propositions of SiMPore, says James Roussie, chief scientific officer of SiMPore, by capturing particles of interest on SiMPore materials to provide information.

“Since Parverio is focused on testing services using our materials and intellectual property, it was a natural partnership for SiMPore,” Roussie says. “SiMPore is focused on membrane manufacturing, so to have a partner that’s focused on testing services and other consumer-facing products is a great fit and a win for both organizations.”

For Parverio, the largest market is consumers. Madejski says the water-testing market, estimated at $1 billion, is growing by 5 percent each year. He views his business as part of that growth. Parverio sends vials for samples, filters the water, analyzes it, and sends a report. 

“This technology is pretty hands-on, easy to use, so I’ve been trying to create these little kits that you could use for classrooms and environmental groups who want to do demonstrations—here’s how you isolate and identify these debris that you just pull out of pretty much everywhere,” Madejski says.

In addition to home testing, Parverio plans to work with researchers, industry, environmentalists and municipalities. However, regulation around microplastics has been slow in the United States. In 2020, California became the first state to define microplastics in water. It defines it as “solid polymeric materials to which chemical additives or other substances may have been added, which are particles which have at least three dimensions that are greater than 1 nanometer and less than 5,000 micrometers.”

As more people become aware of the presence of microplastics, Madejski hopes to expand the water-testing arena and make Parverio a leader.

Increasing awareness

December 2019 Pew Research Center report says two-thirds of Americans believe using fewer single-use plastics (such as cups, straws and bags) would make a big difference for the environment. Seventy-two percent said they are using fewer disposable plastics for environmental reasons.

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows, however, that the waste from disposable plastic consumer items has held steady over the last two decades. While the total volume of those items entering the waste stream has increased over time—to 15.6 million tons in 2017 (the most recent year available at the time) from 14.6 million in 2010—it has increased in proportion to population, meaning that the average amount of such waste each American generates a day held nearly constant, at around 4 ounces, the report states. 

Greg Madejski

“They’re very useful materials,” says Madejski of plastics, “but we need to do a better job of keeping them out of the environment and keeping them out of what we drink.”

He believes raising awareness is essential to keeping the pollutants at bay. An Ipsos study found that misperceptions about climate change and the natural environment are widespread in the United States.

The study supports “Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything,” a book by Bobby Duffy of the Policy Institute at King’s College London. He believes attitudes to issues like climate change are linked to identity and attachment to political parties. 

“This doesn’t mean we should give up on the facts: a little more understanding of the scale of the issues and the most effective actions we can take would help all Americans across the political spectrum,” Duffy writes.

For Parverio, the need to educate underscores its reason for being and, ultimately, its growth. The company hopes to participate in the Luminate NY accelerator program, raise $1 million, purchase a spectroscopic automated microscope to augment its technology, and scale the business to thousands of tests and national reach.

“We’re going to keep beating the drum, keep talking to people and keep trying to raise awareness,” Madejski says.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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