Pennsylvania Legacies #155

October 29, 2021By: Lily Jones
PEC Blog

The problem of plastic polluting the ocean has been a popular topic for a while. But until about 10 years ago, no one was studying the prevalence of plastics in fresh water. Dr. Sherri Mason, Director of Sustainability at Penn State Erie, was one of the first to look into plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. We speak with her about her research on microplastics, and what it means for ecosystem and human health.

Dr. Sherri Mason, Director of Sustainability at Penn State Erie, helped put the issue of plastic pollution in fresh water, and specifically the Great Lakes, on the map. She has spent the last decade researching microplastics: tiny pieces of plastic, sometimes nearly invisible to the naked eye, that pose serious risks to our environment and human health. She became interested in the topic while teaching a class on a boat on Lake Erie, and organized a study trawling for plastic in the lakes. Microplastics made up 75% of the initial samples.

A recent study found microplastics in 100% of sampled Pennsylvania waterways.

Microplastics are not only an issue in the Great Lakes. A recent study by PennEnvironment found microplastics in 100% of sampled Pennsylvania waterways.

Plastic pollution is an eyesore, but that isn’t why most people are concerned about it. Plastic can cause suffocation and starvation to wildlife, and a number of potential human health impacts. Plastics contain various additives to give them desirable qualities, like color and flexibility. These additives are not always chemically bound to the plastics, and can end up migrating into our waterways.

“We know that in fact plastics are not inert. These chemicals that are in and on plastics will migrate into the food chain and ultimately into us,” said Dr. Mason. “And we know that those chemicals have very well-known human health impacts, from certain types of cancers… to impeding our ability to reproduce.”

Harmful chemicals in the environment can also attach to plastics. When those plastic particles are eaten by fish, the chemicals can bioaccumulate and move up the food chain as those fish are consumed.

We know that in fact plastics are not inert. These chemicals that are in and on plastics will migrate into the food chain and ultimately into us.

A pre-production microplastic pellet, or “nurdle”.

“They’re hydrophobic, water fearing molecules, and so they will look for ways to get out of the water and plastic is a perfect surface for them, they love it. It’s also hydrophobic, and so they stick to plastic to ge tout of the water and then that plastic if it is ingested just moved those [chemicals] into people,” said Dr. Mason.

She believes we need to be a lot more mindful about how plastic is used.

“As a chemist, I can understand the attractiveness of plastic. It’s an extremely strong material that is at the same time lightweight. And there’s no other material like that in nature,” she said. “I just think we need to do a lot more thinking in advance about what should we be making out of this material.” 

Dr Mason has a couple of tips for addressing plastic pollution:

  • Recycle what you can — glass, metal, and paper are easily recyclable. Be careful which plastics you recycle, because many kinds can’t be recycled. Adding non-recyclable plastic to your recycling bin will contaminate the batch, which usually means it will end up in a landfill. Most local government websites will have guidance on what kinds of plastics they recycle. 
  • Go beyond recycling. Reduce the number of plastic items that you use, especially single use ones. When you do purchase plastic items, try to reuse them. Many items that are intended for single use, like plastic bags and takeout containers, can be easily washed and reused.
  • Let your representatives know that you are concerned about plastic pollution. There are a number of existing proposed bills that would address plastic pollution on the federal level.

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