By Michelle Beloskur
Editor’s note: Michelle Beloskur is a community outreach team member on the Smart Management of Microplastics in the Great Lakes project, led by Wayne State University in collaboration with the Ingham Conservation District, Reroot Pontiac, and the Clinton River Watershed Council and the cities of Williamston and Pontiac, Michigan. Ms. Beloskur is leading project outreach efforts in and around the City of Williamston, Michigan.
If you care about the Great Lakes, you may have heard about microplastic pollution. Microplastics are plastics that measure no more than 5 millimeters long and reflect a growing environmental and public health concern. They come from a variety of sources. Some are intentionally manufactured. These are found in industrial or health and beauty products, the latter often used for scouring or exfoliation purposes.
Microplastics also are created unintentionally through the breakdown of larger plastic debris, such as bags, bottles, or straws. Microplastics can take the form of fibers shed from clothing made of non-natural fabrics such as polyester, acrylic, nylon, or spandex, as well.
The result, whether microplastics are created purposely or as a byproduct, is widespread pollution. Microplastics have been found in our rivers, lakes, oceans, drinking water, and food. The abundance and small size of microplastics allows them to bypass water treatment and easily be ingested by wildlife and humans. One global analysis found that an average person ingests enough plastic each week to make a credit card!
Microplastics have been found in environments around the globe, even in some of the most remote places on Earth. While the impacts of microplastic pollution are not yet fully understood, concern exists that they could build up in body tissue, causing inflammation and negative health impacts to our digestive and nervous systems. There is also a concern that other pollutants could attach themselves to microplastic particles and be carried into our bodies and the bodies of wildlife.
Project Helping Reduce Microplastic Pollution in the Great Lakes
In 2018, the Great Lakes Protection Fund awarded Wayne State University a grant to develop innovative sensor technology that can detect and identify microplastics in water. The grant also supported a public awareness campaign designed to increase community-level engagement in reducing microplastic pollution.
“The issue of plastic pollution—and, more specifically, microplastic pollution—is beginning to get more attention,” said Dr. Yongli Z. Wager, Associate Professor at Wayne State University, and the project’s principal investigator. “However, this is still a relatively new issue for most people, and a great deal of outreach is still needed to make positive changes to public awareness and engagement.”
The abundance and small size of microplastics allows them to bypass water treatment and easily be ingested by wildlife and humans. One global analysis found that an average person ingests enough plastic each week to make a credit card!
Over the last three years, the Smart Management of Microplastic Pollution in the Great Lakes project has made a great deal of progress. Focus groups with community leaders are helping the project team assess how participants perceive the issue of microplastic pollution and what they would need to address it. Project team members have created and shared public and student educational materials, social media graphics, videos, and presentations.
In Pontiac, Michigan, a bioretention area is serving both as an awareness-building tool and as a trap for plastic debris to remove the plastic pollution before it can break down into microplastics. In 2021, the project team provided 300 households in the project area with a microplastic-filtering laundry bag, an in-home tool for reducing microplastic pollution. These bags trap microplastic fibers that come loose from clothing during the machine wash cycle, preventing them from reaching our lakes and rivers. Finally, project staff members from the Wayne State University Engineering Department have built an innovative sensor prototype to detect and identify microplastics in water.
Much of the project’s outreach and education has taken place in two pilot locations, the cities of Williamston and Pontiac, Michigan. The project team has found that awareness and education are still greatly needed on this issue, but also that when informed, many people are willing to act. Of the 300 households that requested and received a microplastic-filtering laundry bag, over 75 percent plan to continue using it and 77 percent reported that using the bag inspired the household to take additional actions to reduce microplastic pollution. Across the project area, nearly 650 volunteers participated in community cleanup events, and a growing number of people are taking a “Microplastic Pledge” to commit to reducing microplastic pollution.
An important goal of this project is to share what the team has learned during the education and engagement process. The project team is developing a “lessons learned” document that summarizes effective microplastic outreach and engagement methods, as well as an online Community Action Toolkit to house a wide range of additional resources. The Toolkit to be released in June 2023 will contain educational materials for the public, including videos and classroom curriculum. The results of our community-leader focus group research will be available, as well as guidance on how to actively reduce plastic pollution through individual and community actions.
A particularly exciting aspect of this project is the completion of the sensor prototype that can detect and identify microplastics in water. The goal is to have a more efficient and cost-effective means of detecting microplastics in the environment. The sensor under development has many potential applications, including the ability to detect microplastics in our rivers, at water treatment facilities, or even at drinking fountains. Currently, the team is improving the sensor prototype to identify plastic types #1 to #6 that are 0.1mm (just one-tenth of a millimeter) in size or smaller. These small particles are of particular concern due to their abundance and capacity to impact environmental and human health. The sensor is scheduled to be field-tested this summer.
Knowing what type of plastics are polluting a river or water supply can help communities target their outreach and pollution-reduction efforts most effectively. For example, a community could deploy a sensor to analyze plastic pollution in a local river. The sensor might detect a high percentage of #4 HDPE (high density polyethylene), a plastic commonly used to make shopping bags. With this information, community leaders may want to target their pollution-reduction efforts by promoting reusable shopping bags, encouraging and easing access to proper recycling of plastic bags, or even by considering a bag ban.
While we are still learning about microplastic pollution and its impacts, there are many things we can do right now to reduce our plastic “footprint”:
- Be aware of the issue—Wayne State University has produced videos for elementary-through-adult audiences that provide a great introduction.
- Reduce the amount of plastic we use, especially single-use plastics such as shopping bags, bottled-water containers, and straws.
- Choose natural instead of synthetic fabrics when possible.
- Use a microplastic filter when doing laundry—Choose from items such as a Cora Ball, Guppyfriend Washing Bag, or an in-line filter. These filters prevent microplastic fibers that are shed during machine washing from entering our rivers and lakes.
- Be aware of plastics in health and beauty products—Download the Beat the Microbead app, which scans product bar codes for plastic ingredients.
- Choose to reuse—Reuse items when possible, and opt for reusable options such as shopping bags, coffee cups, and water bottles.
- Recycle—Know which items can be recycled in your community, and make sure the items you put in your recycling are clean.
- Organize or participate in community cleanup events—Prevent plastic litter from becoming a source of microplastic pollution.
- Take the Microplastic Pledge!—What we do at home and in our community impacts local waters and ultimately, the Great Lakes. Pledge to do your part to reduce microplastic pollution.
- Share information on microplastics with your friends, family, and members of your community.
- Encourage your community to utilize the Online Community Toolkit being developed by the Smart Management of Microplastic Pollution in the Great Lakes Project.