Tag: microplastics

Where do plastic bags and bottles go to die?

Where do plastic bottles and plastic grocery bags go to die when they’re discarded?

The better question might be, do they ever die?

Studies around the world have shown that many plastics break into small pieces, or microplastics, that persist indefinitely. They clutter the ocean – and the Great Lakes. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 112,000 particles of plastic per square mile of Great Lakes water. And a sampling of Lake Ontario and Lake Superior fish found the “highest concentration of microplastics and other anthropogenic [human-made] microparticles ever reported in bony fish, including 12,442 anthropogenic microparticles in 212 fish from nearshore Lake Ontario, and 3094 in 119 fish from Lake Superior. 35-59% of the particles were microplastics.”

Plastic particles 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller are considered to be microplastics. Studies have found microplastics in the atmosphere, on land, and in oceans and freshwaters. They have also made their way into drinking water and foods intended for human consumption. And from there they enter the human body.

While the specific, causal effects plastics may have on human health are yet unknown and currently being researched, animal studies suggest that plastics and plastic byproducts affect digestive, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems. Plastics may act as both physical and chemical stressors to people, as they enter through the human digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems.

Another study attempted to estimate the global mean rate of human consumption of microplastics, producing a figure of 0.1–5 g of microplastics per week. Variability is high depending on location, age, size, and cultural factors. The high end is roughly equivalent to ingesting a credit card’s weight of different types of plastics every week.

Although we don’t yet know how microplastics affect human health, there are worrisome signals. Preventing human exposure to microplastics should be a priority. Finding substitutes for the microplastics that are intentionally added to agricultural chemicals, paints, cosmetics, and detergent, for example, is critical. For example, scientists are now piloting a system based on biodegradable silk instead.

There is hope – but there is also urgency.

Helping Great Lakes Communities Address Microplastic Pollution

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.

Michelle Beloskur, Wayne State University

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”: 

  1. Be aware of the issue—Wayne State University has produced videos for elementary-through-adult audiences that provide a great introduction.
  2. Reduce the amount of plastic we use, especially single-use plastics such as shopping bags, bottled-water containers, and straws.
  3. Choose natural instead of synthetic fabrics when possible.
  4. Use a microplastic filter when doing laundry—Choose from items such as a Cora BallGuppyfriend Washing Bag, or an in-line filter. These filters prevent microplastic fibers that are shed during machine washing from entering our rivers and lakes.
  5. Be aware of plastics in health and beauty products—Download the Beat the Microbead app, which scans product bar codes for plastic ingredients.
  6. Choose to reuse—Reuse items when possible, and opt for reusable options such as shopping bags, coffee cups, and water bottles. 
  7. Recycle—Know which items can be recycled in your community, and make sure the items you put in your recycling are clean. 
  8. Organize or participate in community cleanup events—Prevent plastic litter from becoming a source of microplastic pollution.
  9. 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.
  10. Share information on microplastics with your friends, family, and members of your community.
  11. Encourage your community to utilize the Online Community Toolkit being developed by the Smart Management of Microplastic Pollution in the Great Lakes Project.

How many Microplastic Particles Do We Consume Every Year?

Bottled water

By Dave Long

As we become increasingly aware of the crisis surrounding plastics in the environment, we need to increase research on the health effects of the microplastics we ingest each year.

Tiny pieces of microplastic ranging from 5 millimeters down to 100 nanometers in diameter are showing up in oceans, lakes, and rivers and being entering the food chain as aquatic and marine organisms consume them. Ultimately, these microplastics will enter our bodies in larger numbers. However, we do not yet have the scientific data to determine the health effects of ingested or inhaled microplastics.

A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has estimated Americans consume more than 70,000 microplastic particles every year from the food we eat and the water we drink. Scientists warn that while the health impacts of ingesting these tiny particles are largely unknown, the plastic could potentially enter human tissues and cause an immune response, as well as release toxic chemicals into the body.

The analysis, done by biologists at the University of Victoria in Canada, examined data from 26 previous studies on microplastic contamination in fish, shellfish, sugars, salts, honey, alcohol, tap water, bottled water, and in urban air. It found that Americans eat and drink an estimated 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles every year, depending on age and gender. These numbers jumped to 74,000 to 121,000 when scientists included inhalation of microplastics.

People who drink only from plastic bottles can consume 90,000 microplastic particles annually compared to 4,000 particles for people who drank only tap water. When the 2018 Orb study for Business Insider was originally released, Aquafina and Dasani both told the magazine their bottled water is tested to strict standards and pass through high-quality filtration systems. Nestlé said the company hasn’t found microplastics in its water bottles beyond a “trace level”, disputing the study numbers. Evian did not respond to a request for comment. But studies suggest that particles do, in fact, exist in bottled water. They come out of our taps, too (though likely in smaller amounts than plastic bottle concentrations). The scientists warn that their findings are “likely drastic underestimates overall”.

Another marine food source of microplastics is sea salt, one kilogram of which can contain more than 600 microplastics. If you eat the maximum daily intake of 5 grams of salt, this would mean you would typically consume three microplastics particles a day. New research now shows microplastics in 90 percent of the table salt brands sampled worldwide. Salt samples from 21 countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia were analyzed, and only three brands did not contain microplastics— refined sea salt from Taiwan, refined rock salt from China, and unrefined sea salt from France produced by solar evaporation. The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on October 4, 2018.

According to collaborative research done by scientists at the University of Minnesota and the State University of New York at Fredonia, microplastic fibers or particles were present in each brand of beer tested that used tap water drawn from the Great Lakes. In their paper, published in the journal, Public Library of Science, the team found that in each of the 12 mainly Pilsner-style beers tested from all five Great Lakes, the number of particles per liter ranged from 0-14.3 and averaged 4.05.

Fish and shellfish aren’t our only food sources that can contain microplastics. Just 15 percent of a person’s caloric intake is associated with the consumption of up to 52,000 microplastics annually. And the researchers note that several major U.S. food groups—including poultry, beef, dairy, grains, and vegetables—have not been studied for their microplastic contamination. In addition, the scientists weren’t able to assess how much plastic might be entering our bodies from food packaging.

The study’s findings “suggest that microplastics will continue to be found in the majority, if not all, items intended for human consumption,” the scientists wrote. “If the precautionary principle were to be followed, the most effective way to reduce human consumption of microplastics will likely be to reduce the production and use of plastics.”

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability.

How Big is the Plastics Problem in the Great Lakes?

By Dave Long

Many people realize the world has a serious problem with plastic pollution. The crisis has been featured on television, in movies and articles in National Geographic and many other publications. For example, the news has featured the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has been estimated to be the size of the state of Texas.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is largely made up of plastics. It contains single-use plastic waste, old fishing nets and buoys, and many other plastics from around the earth that have been caught up in the ocean currents. There have been several efforts to collect the plastics and reduce the volume of the garbage patch, but these efforts have not been very successful. The sad fact is three other garbage patches have been identified in the oceans, and many small islands have been destroyed by plastic waste.

The Great Lakes contain approximately 20% of the world’s surface fresh water. Compared to ocean plastics, not much has been reported about the amount of plastics in the Great Lakes. Based on the 2016 US Geological Survey (USGS) reports, significant volumes of plastics enter the Great Lakes every year, and they are not going away. The United States and Canada together discard 22 million pounds of plastic into the waters of the Great Lakes each year, according to a 2016 Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study. Much of it washes up along the shores, accounting for 80 percent of the litter found there. Researchers report that Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, and Detroit are the worst contributors to plastic pollution. Half of the plastic dumped into the Great Lakes—11 million pounds—goes into Lake Michigan. Lake Erie places second, receiving 5.5 million pounds. Lake Ontario gets 3 million pounds of plastic waste a year, with Lake Huron and Lake Superior receiving smaller amounts.

Plastic pollution in Lake Michigan represents approximately the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles dumped into the lake every year. Most of the particles from Chicago and Milwaukee end up accumulating on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, while the particles from Detroit and Cleveland end up along the southern coast of the eastern basin of Lake Erie.

According to an article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, tiny pieces of harmful plastic called microplastics are prevalent in many rivers that flow into the Great Lakes. Results are also illustrated on a new USGS microplastics website. This study characterized the quantity, size, and shapes of floating micro- and macroplastics in 29 Great Lakes tributaries in six states with adjacent land being forested, farmland, and urban areas. Water contributions came primarily from runoff and wastewater effluent. Rivers ran through areas with varied population densities and hydrologic conditions. Plastic particles were sorted by size, counted, and categorized.

Microplastics were found in all 107 samples, with a maximum concentration of 32 particles/m3 and a median of 1.9 particles/m3. Ninety-eight percent of sampled plastic particles were less than 4.75 millimeters in diameter and therefore considered microplastics. Urban watersheds had the highest concentrations of microplastics, but microplastics were also present in streams in forested and agricultural areas.

In summary, the USGS found 12% of fish from the Great Lakes contained plastic particles, 1,285 plastic particles in a square foot of river sediment, and 112,000 particles per square mile of Great Lakes water.

Where do microplastics come from? One source is photodegradation and/or mechanical breakdown of larger items, such as Styrofoam, plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, cigarette butts, and tires. As these plastics are exposed to sunlight, wind, waves, and water currents, larger pieces get smaller and smaller. Unfortunately, filters from cigarette butts are one of the most common types of plastic pollution found on a beach and lake bottom. Many smokers simply flick their cigarette butts on the ground, or worse, in the lakes. Some 95% of cigarette filters are made of tightly packed white cellulose acetate (a plastic). These small fibers break down into smaller and smaller particles, but it takes hundreds of years for cigarette filters to degrade.

Another source of microplastics, a subgroup called microfiber, comes from washing machines. Mark Browne’s research demonstrated a large percentage of the microplastic pollution comes from synthetic fabrics like nylon and acrylic fabrics. Patagonia, in its self-funded study by the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, analyzed water and sediment samples from around the world and concluded “Microfibers are ubiquitous in the aquatic environment.” Patagonia in its own laundry study verified that large quantities of microfibers were released when washing synthetic garments, especially fleece. They also verified that wastewater treatment plants receive large quantities of microfibers and the majority of the microfibers pass through wastewater treatment plants because they are too small for treatment plants to filter.

Knowing that aquatic wildlife eat these microfibers is one thing; but seeing the impact on an individual fish brings this crisis to life—or rather, death. Sherri Mason, a professor of environmental chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, is an expert in plastic pollution, having studied its impact on the Great Lakes ecosystem for several years. Through Mason’s research, she has seen the significant impact of the food chain in the Great Lakes. Cutting open fish, she was alarmed at what she found.  The body cavity of the fish was filled with synthetic fibers. Through the microscope, they seemed to be weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract.

What are the known risks from microplastics? We know that microplastics and microfibers can be harmful to wildlife. They are often ingested by birds, fish, oysters, mussels, and zooplankton. Ingestion is often a physical hazard blocking the intestine, interfering with reproduction, and even causing death.

They can also be a toxic hazard. Plastic particles can accumulate contaminants such polychlorinated organics, polycyclic hydrocarbons, and pesticides, which can be associated with endocrine disruption and cancer. These contaminants can accumulate within the food chain and end up in the fish we eat. Microfibers from garments have often been treated with toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, brominated flame retardants and fluorinated fabric treatments. In a 2012 study, Mason found Lake Erie had higher concentrations of microplastics than any other body of water on Earth. Absorbed on these tiny pieces of plastic they found pollutants, such as DDT, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), too small for treatment plants to filter out.

Are those living around the Great Lakes ingesting microplastics and microfibers? If humans are eating fish and other wildlife from the Great Lakes, they are likely consuming microplastics. Your favorite beer, if manufactured with Great Lakes water, likely contains microplastics or microfibers. Microfibers have been found in bottled water derived from the Great Lakes and microplastics and microfibers have been found in small quantities in some public water systems. Unfortunately, to date, very little research has been conducted on the effects of microplastics being ingested by humans. Much research will be required to determine the health or physical impacts to human ingestion of microfibers and microplastics.

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability. He will address potential methods to reduce the volume of plastics entering the Great Lakes and its tributaries in a future article.

Microplastics Invading the Food Chain

Photo: Possible microplastic mass in lower segment of Copepod

By David Long

The Great Lakes face many challenges. Some are well-known, such as Asian carp, but some are almost invisible, such as microplastics.

Small plastic detritus, termed “microplastics” or “microfibers,” are a widespread contaminant in aquatic ecosystems including the Great Lakes.

Research reported in Environmental Science and Technology suggests that marine microplastic debris can have a negative impact upon zooplankton function and health. It can be surmised that the zooplankton communities of the Great Lakes can also be negatively impacted by microfibers. A major concern is that since zooplankton is at the bottom of the food chain microplastics (microfibers) can cause a changes in the zooplankton community. This can harm Great Lakes fisheries.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines microplastics as small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long that can be harmful to our aquatic life. They are created by the degradation of larger items, such as discarded single use plastic containers, effluent from wastewater treatment plants and even fallout from the air. Microplastics from wastewater treatment plants comes from discarded plastics, laundering fleece, synthetic fiber clothing, and waste from carpet cleaning. Microplastics in airborne dust can enter the water through wind and runoff from roads and other impervious surfaces.

Ingestion of microplastics by organisms, including mussels, worms, fish, and seabirds, has been widely reported, but the impact of microplastics on zooplankton remains under-researched. It is very difficult to identify microfibers in zooplankton. Microplastics are best identified using 3D bioimaging techniques to document ingestion, egestion, and adherence of microplastics.

Microplastics have been observed adhering to the external carapace and appendages of exposed zooplankton. Ingestion of microplastics can interfere with the digestive system. More research is needed to understand the impact of microplastic debris on zooplankton.

Microplastics and microfibers pollution is well documented in research from universities such as the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, The University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and the State University of New York, Fredonia. Researchers from these schools as well as the U.S. Geological Survey have documented the presence of microplastics and microfibers in the Great Lakes since 2013.

Researchers have seen the volume of microplastics and microfibers increase over the years. Microfibers and microplastics have been found in beer brewed with Great Lakes water and drinking water taken from the Great Lakes. It is estimated about 22 million pounds of plastics enter the Great Lakes each year. Unfortunately, there is no legislation that protects our valuable Great Lakes water from plastic pollution.

There are no known solutions for cleaning up microplastic pollution in our lakes and oceans. Plastic does not degrade, it only breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. The only solution for the future is to reduce the amount of single-use plastics and increase the percentage of plastic that is recycled. Currently only 9% of plastic in the United States is recycled. It is cheaper to make virgin plastic from oil than to recycle plastic. Until the economics change, the industry will continue to make virgin plastic from oil and the recycle rate for plastics will remain low.

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability.