How our love affair with plastics affects our waterways and our food
Without our knowing it, tiny plastic particles in rivers, lakes, and oceans have been absorbing toxins and moving them onto our tables via food items like oysters, German beer and sea salt.
These particles are known as microplastics, minuscule (5mm or less) fragments that make their way into the waterways, where they soak up heavy metals, PCBs, even E. coli. As they float in the water or adhere to plant material, they’re frequently mistaken for food and ingested by small organisms and herbivorous fish, then larger organisms, who excrete the plastic but retain the poisons in their intestinal tract and, eventually, in their fatty tissue.
Microplastics come in many forms, from many sources. Some come from plastic bottles or Styrofoam coolers thoughtlessly tossed to the side of the road, where they’re shredded by cars and wind, washed into storm drains, and deposited straight into the water. Others, called microfibers, detach from synthetic clothes in the washing machine and get flushed into wastewater treatment plants, which are unable to trap the too-tiny particles before releasing them into the environment.
Prior to December 2015, microbeads—miniature plastic spheres used as exfoliates in beauty products—were also a major source of microplastic pollution until Congress passed the Microbead-Free Water Act. The existence of microbeads in our water was discovered by Dr. Sherri Mason, professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, in 2012, during a three-week course designed to study plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.
When the public heard about Mason’s discovery, her phone started ringing off the hook, and she greatly expanded the scope of her research. Hundreds of water samples, thousands of lab hours, two years, and one congressional ban later, Mason turned her attention from microbeads to the effluent from wastewater treatment plants to see what else she could discover about microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes.
She began working locally, at Dunkirk, but it was a small town with a limited number of wastewater treatment plants. About that time an email crossed her desk informing her of an initiative called Distance Mentored Undergraduate Research. Piloted at four SUNY colleges (Geneseo, Plattsburgh, Oswego and Fredonia), the program aims to build intercampus collaborations and expand opportunities for student researchers. It allows students from one institution to conduct research with expert faculty at another under the supervision of a local faculty mentor.
To Mason’s delight, two environmental science majors studying water chemistry at SUNY Plattsburgh contacted her about working on her wastewater treatment plant project. “I thought it was great,” says Mason, “because now I’d be getting samples from elsewhere in the state.” Danielle Garneau, associate professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh, came on board as the students’ faculty mentor.
Garneau, Mason and the four students began collaborating via weekly Skype meetings, during which they worked out the protocol for taking and processing water samples. Garneau and her students set out sieves at Plattsburgh’s wastewater treatment plant, while Mason and her students continued sampling in Lake Erie, eventually expanding her locus of inquiry to include ten wastewater treatment plants across the Great Lakes region and seven in San Francisco.
In addition to broadening the geographic scope of her project, Mason sought to learn more about how microplastics affect the ecosystem. In particular, she began looking to see if the microplastics were moving up the food chain. Simultaneously, Garneau and her students began looking at trophic uptake and long-term zooplankton monitoring samples in Lake Champlain.
Their findings did not cheer the heart. Says Mason, “Every facility had plastic. On a per gallon basis it wasn’t that much, but all of these facilities are processing millions of gallons of water per day, so that on average, in each of the 17 facilities, we were seeing over 4 million pieces of plastic every day. And there are 1500 facilities across the U.S.” Approximately 60 percent of the microplastic in the effluent samples were microfibers, about 34 percent were microbeads, and the remaining 6 percent comprised pieces of film and foam.
The research teams also traced bioaccumulation of microplastics in the bodies of animals as high on the food chain as cormorants and bass. According to Garneau, “Up until this year we were finding a broad range of microplastics. I don’t know if something changed moving into 2015, but the majority of the post-treatment particulate from wastewater effluent is microfibers. Additionally when we perform our digests moving up the food chain, what we’re seeing is a story of microfibers.”
Their findings are currently under peer-review for the journal Environmental Pollution in a paper entitled “Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant Effluent as a Pathway of Microplastic Pollution,” headlined by Mason and Garneau with five student coauthors.
Both Mason and Garneau continue to study microplastic pollution in our rivers and lakes. Mason is currently conducting three studies: feeding plastic to plankton and monitoring the effect; analyzing how plastic breaks apart in freshwater systems; and quantifying how much plastic is in the rivers that flow into the Great Lakes.
Garneau recently received a grant from Lake Champlain Sea Grant to study the abundance and distribution of microplastics in Lake Champlain, trophic transfer, and wastewater inputs. She and her students are availing themselves of zooplankton samples collected by the Lake Champlain Research Institute, which has been monitoring the lake organisms since the mid-1990s. They’ve found a sizable number of preproduction material called nurdles, which they’ve determined to be rubber. Their goal is to determine when the nurdles started appearing and where they’re found in greatest quantity. This research has offered experiential learning research opportunities to 12 students at SUNY Plattsburgh thus far.
Beyond the research lie the solutions. A coalition of U.S. and Canadian mayors known as the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative asked presidential candidates to devote at least $300 million a year to protect and restore the Great Lakes. Garneau proposes pressuring washing machine companies and STEM engineering students to build washing machines capable of catching the microfibers before they make their way into our water.
In the meantime, consumers can buy a nifty little product developed by the ocean-conservation group Rozalia Project: a little ball, modeled after the sea anemone, that you throw into your washing machine to trap fibers and hair. It costs about $25. Every six weeks you send your filled catcher back to Rozalia Project, and the group will send you a new catcher.
Then there’s the ultimate solution: changing our behavior. Mason points out that it’s neither feasible nor logical to ban plastics entirely, since the material has some important long-term applications, such as artificial limbs and IV bags. But then she points to a 1955 Life magazine story entitled “Throwaway Living,” featuring an image of a family throwing a week’s worth of plastic items in the air with the caption, “These objects would take 40 hours to clean, except that no housewife need bother. They are all meant to be thrown away after use.” Says Mason, “It’s a great image that we bought into hook, line, and sinker, but we’re starting to wake up to the fact that our love affair with plastic might not be a very healthy relationship.”
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