Kristen Mitchell took a cruise and it changed her life.

It wasn’t a vacation, but rather a six-week research trip in the Pacific Ocean with Sea Education Association (SEA). Her ship sailed from San Diego to the Hawaiian Islands, pulling plastic debris from the sea as it travelled.

Mitchell, a Research Associate at the University of Waterloo, was overwhelmed at the amount of plastic waste floating in the ocean. She watched everything from microscopic remnants to large objects like discarded flip-flops and plastic bags being pulled from the ocean.

The impact of plastic litter in waterways – on wildlife, on people and on the economy – is staggering, notes Mitchell. More than 6 million tons of litter enter the ocean every year, and 90 percent of that is plastic debris [link to project aware] says Mitchell. Her concern is that no one is really doing anything to stop it.

She returned from her trip ready to make a change. She switched her focus from biogeochemistry to studying plastic debris in the Great Lakes.

And she’s looking for ways to get better data.

“[During the cruise] we collected plastics in a net and then counted them,” says Mitchell. “We did four net tows a day. It was a lot of collecting and counting by hand.”

“Searching for plastic debris by hand is time consuming and costly,” says Mitchell. She and Canada Excellence Research Chair Philippe Van Cappellen joined the Communitech DATA.BASE project - a collaboration of industry and academic partners that are collaborating to explore technology-driven ways to capture and commercialize “big data” in various markets through the University of Waterloo’s Water Institute to research the issue.

Mitchell wants to explore the use of remote sensing technologies to conduct more studies more frequently, helping to create a larger understanding of where the plastic debris is coming from and where it ends up.  This is important because it helps researchers and companies understand waste patterns, and which areas are being impacted by pollution.

Mitchell and her team have joined Communitech’s DATA.BASE program to work with other academic and private professionals to research and innovate techniques to build a better remote sensor.

Currently collaborating with DATA.BASE partner P & P Optica, Mitchell will work with the teams to make a product and get it into the field for a feasibility study.

“Chlorophyll used to be collected in boats using nets, and the analysis was done by hand. And now it’s done with satellites,” said Mitchell, “And so that’s the parallel we’re drawing and that’s where the project is starting.”

Mitchell’s team is currently doing lab tests to analyze possible remote sensing options, including Raman and near infrared sensors.

Gathering this type of data is appealing beyond Mitchell’s research group. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are interested in large-scale water data. The shipping and water industries also benefit from this information.

“The chemical issue with breakdown of plastics is unknown but crucially important for our health and the health of our planet,” says Van Cappellen.

For most people it’s about education – Van Cappellen’s lab has debris from everyday objects that highlight the need for more stringent regulations and better product labels.

Currently there is no legal limit for plastics in water. Mitchell and Van Cappellen hope their research will get the public and government and talking about the need for guidelines.

While analyzing water samples from the Great Lakes they discovered plastic fibres and beads. Through analysis, they discovered the plastic bits were the cleansing beads from a popular face wash company. Those same beads that are used daily as people clean their bodies end up in the ocean and in water systems.

“There are other companies out there that make products with cleansing beads that actually disintegrate, or are made from natural ingredients. We need better labeling for consumers to make smart choices about what they are putting into our water.” says Van Cappellen.

“This is something that affects everyone,” says Van Cappellen,” And there’s something you can do about it to fix it.”