Targeting Microplastics in the Great Lakes

microbeads-plastic

This is a story I recently wrote about microplastics research for the SNRE blog. You can view the original post here.

Microplastic particles – from facial scrubs, toothpastes, nylon and fleece clothing, and plastic debris – have entered the Great Lakes and opened new areas of research for scientists.

Most current research has focused on studying the impacts of microplastic particles on marine ecosystems. Research on microplastic particles in freshwater ecosystems, particularly the Great Lakes, remains largely understudied – but is just as critical, since the Great Lakes are central to the region’s health, providing vital life support for its interconnected ecosystems and drinking water to 30 million people.

Researchers at SNRE have taken the lead on tracing the effects of microplastic particles in the Great Lakes – although the current research has only scratched the surface, says SNRE’s Jennifer Daley.

Daley, a research fellow in Allen Burton’s Ecotoxicology Lab, recently gave a lecture at the Cranbrook Institute of Science as a part of their new exhibit, Plastic Waters: From the Great Lakes to the Oceans. The exhibit is presented by the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes and the California-based 5 Gyres Institute.

Some of the most urgent research areas so far include:

  • In a 2013 study, 12% of the microplastics came in the form of microplastic fibers, shed from synthetic fabrics like nylon and polar fleece. The source? Our washing machines, suspects Daley, who highlighted the need for more research on microplastic fibers.
  • Microplastic particles can affect organisms in unknown ways, impacting an organism’s behavior or morphology – such as reducing mobility or delaying ovulation, in for example.
  • Microplastic particles can also carry chemical contaminants which can interfere with growth, development, and reproductive health.
  • Microplastics are continually being broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, making it both easier for plastic to enter ecosystems and harder to clean up.

Research on microplastics in the Great Lakes has only led to more questions – like if microplastics are reacting with other chemicals in the environment, like legacy contaminants such as PCBS.

The research has also led to a movement to ban microplastics from personal products, and increased pressure on companies to find biodegradable alternatives.

“With young science, it’s beneficial to look at other focus areas to do our research, and some of those directions I can see in the future would be understanding the types of microplastic that are the biggest current threat,” Daley said.

Read the original story on Craig’s Detroit Business.

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