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Win Cowger & Rohit Naimpally: California Tracking Microplastics is the Beginning of Something Bigger

[Note from California 100: The Possibility Lab and California 100 have partnered with the Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research, the State Water Resources Control Board, and San Francisco Estuary Institute to help make California the first government in the world to monitor for microplastics in drinking water.  

Win Cowger, a Research Scientist at the  Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research and Rohit Naimpally, Innovation Team Lead at California 100 discuss the challenges and innovation opportunities with microplastic data monitoring] 


November 14, 2022

Plastics are everywhere. Some are obvious, like a gallon milk jug, and some less so, like in the tires on your car or your new fleece pullover. Microplastics are the miniscule plastic particles that arise from the breakdown of all these plastic-containing materials. These particles, many of which are only visible under a microscope, work their way into drinking water sources through wind, rain, and runoff. In turn, we ingest these plastics through our drinking water. While studies suggest that the presence of microplastics in drinking water can have harmful health and environmental impacts, a paucity of data has meant that we don’t know what types, or concentrations, of microplastics may be most harmful. A first-of-its-kind tool will not only make tracking microplastics in our water easier, but also facilitate broader open-source data use applications by government agencies.

Passed in 2018, Senate Bill 1422 requires California’s State Water Resources Control Board to adopt a standard methodology to be used in the testing and reporting of microplastics levels in drinking water. A policy handbook recently adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board acts on SB 1422 by establishing what constitutes “microplastics”, what data need to be collected on them, when and how water systems will monitor, and how these data are to be reported. 

That last part – how the data are to be reported – presents a challenge. Microplastics require complex data sets owing to the variety of shapes and sizes that microplastics come in, and their occurrence as particles rather than as dissolved substances. This complexity currently creates significant incompatibilities between data portals and microplastics data sets. 

The California 100 Initiative is tackling this challenge head-on, supporting a partnership between the Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research, the State Water Resources Control Board, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and the Possibility Lab to develop an innovative open-source data reporting tool. The State Water Resources Control Board’s microplastics policy handbook establishes this tool as the standard reporting protocol for statewide data on microplastics in drinking water.

Data accessibility is critical to ensuring transparency and trust in government. We envision a future where all the software used in the public sector is built on open-source code and is supported and developed in collaboration with the community it serves. Open-source software allows all data input and analysis to be transparent to the public, democratizing water quality monitoring while increasing public engagement for this vital resource and building awareness of environmental and health issues. 

The possibilities are vast; even as the microplastics reporting tool serves a valuable use in and of itself, it could also serve as a pilot for applications across a range of complex data needs – such as environmental DNA or non-targeted analytical chemistry. The development of this platform might ultimately allow government agencies in California and the world to collect, process, and manage data more efficiently.

Through this tool, we can position California not only as a leader in the vanguard of microplastics monitoring, but also at the forefront of building flexible, transparent data infrastructure.