Though some newer plastics are compostable, older plastics persist everywhere in our environment. Photo by Will Buzzerd

Early in January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded two Colorado-based small businesses $100,000 each in a series of nationwide awards to support research into technologies for improving the environment. Sporian Microsystems Inc. of Lafayette and J-Tech LLC of Lakewood were among 25 small businesses to receive a grant through the EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

Both front-range businesses are being funded for the development of novel technologies. More specifically, Sporian Microsystems will be using the award to research and develop an affordable high-speed imaging system for identifying microplastics in the environment. 

Microplastics are any pieces of plastic debris that are smaller than five millimeters. They exist in two categories. Primary microplastics are particles specifically made small for their commercial purpose, either as microbeads in cosmetics or microscopic threads shed from fishing nets. Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, are particles that result from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic, like a plastic bag or soda bottle.

The main issue with microplastics — beyond that their size makes collection extremely difficult — is that they are highly persistent, meaning that they can remain in the environment for centuries. A plastic grocery bag, for example, is estimated to take nearly 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill and still may leave behind harmful chemicals once that process is complete. 

Another issue is that microplastics appear in places that one might think unspoiled. Last year, researchers from Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands found microplastics being deposited in the snowpack of the Alps, in areas only accessible by foot and with strict laws concerning plastic usage. The study, conducted at the Austrian Sonnblick Observatory (at an altitude of 10,190 feet), found that plastics were being deposited at a rate of 42 kilograms per square kilometer, showing that they are windborne and can reach even high, seemingly inaccessible places. Likewise, a U.S. Geological Survey study published last year — initially undertaken to identify atmospheric dust in Colorado snowpack — found microplastics in all 38 samples taken in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Microplastics are also difficult to properly identify. They come in various sizes, shapes and compositions, so single methods of identification, such as through microscopes or chemical analysis, can be inaccurate, and identification using two or more methods is time consuming. With EPA funding, Sporian Systems hopes to develop an efficient identification process, such that researchers can better understand how microplastics are affecting our environment.

J-Tech LLC, on the other hand, will use the award to develop a chemical-free process for the disinfection of wastewater in septic tanks. The process will use microbes and electricity to create non-potable water for purposes like irrigation, ideally allowing on-site disinfection and eliminating the need to transport wastewater to a treatment plant. This can be particularly advantageous to communities in Colorado not tied into municipal water systems, preventing costly truck transportation of septic tank contents to larger treatment sites.

In a pamphlet by the EPA, septic systems were recognized as a major source of groundwater contamination, primarily by releasing excessive quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus out of the tank and into the ecosystem. These two chemicals, while essential nutrients for plants, can have negative effects in high concentrations, such as causing blooms of harmful algae. These nutrients are small and difficult to filter, so introducing nitrogen and phosphorus digesting microbes is an effective technology verified by the EPA to protect groundwater. Theoretically, J-Tech’s technology will not only reduce the cost of septic tank decontamination, but also protect local waterways once fully developed.

The EPA’s program funded both these small businesses for a six-month Phase I stage. At this time, they will develop a proof of concept for their proposed technologies. Should both J-Tech and Sporian Microsystems complete this phase, they can apply for $400,000 of Phase II funding, which will be used to develop and commercialize their technologies. 

In total, the EPA awarded nearly $2.5 million nationwide to support the innovation of environmentally friendly technology by American small businesses, ranging from reducing food waste, improving recycling and detecting pollutants in our environment. With any luck, these technologies will be used to preserve our mountain ecosystem in the near future.