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Scientists race to understand microplastic impact on the environment

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One year after the United States banned microbeads, the small plastic particles you might see in a face scrub, scientists are now turning their attention to microfibers, hairlike plastics in our clothing. Both types of plastic have been cluttering up oceans, rivers, and lakes. But clothing and personal care products aren’t the biggest sources of microplastics.  Scientists are having a hard time finding out what these microplastics are and where they come from.? 

Maybe you thought we were done with microbeads. The ban will take effect in 2018. And it seems like many manufacturing companies are already taking them out of things like facewash and toothpaste. But as Baron Mordo from the box office hit Dr. Strange would say: “Might I offer you some advice? Forget everything that you think you know.”

In September, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study on microplastics in streams leading into the Great Lakes. They found a lot of microbeads, but they weren’t the type you find in personal care products. They looked more like the plastic pellets industrial companies use. Plastics melted down to make more plastics - or the kind used to sandblast metal. And in case you were wondering, no. The ban on microbeads did not include industrial pellets.

But whether they’re in your face scrub or in industrial work, microbeads are just one type of microplastic. And they aren’t even the biggest, baddest type in our waterways. There’s a whole world of microplastics that we never hear about. So how did we get fixated on microbeads? It’s a long answer that involves a lot of science - but stick with me. It’s fascinating science.

First off, microplastics fall into five different categories: “We have fragments, we have films, we have fibers, we have pellets, and we have foams.” That’s Sherri Mason. She researches microplastics at the State University of New York - Fredonia. “Fragments are usually hard pieces of plastic, they might be somewhat round but generally fairly angular.” Plastic pieces that break off of larger things made of plastic - like a water bottle. “Pellets are also hard pieces of plastic but are perfectly spherical.” Pellets aka microbeads.

“Then we have fibers. These are generally things that come off of our synthetic clothes when we wash them, might be fishing lines as well. Then foams which would be like your styrofoam, cigarette butts would also fall into this category.”

And films: “So you know food wrappers and plastic bags.”

But these categories serve about the same function as that shape-sorting toy parents give to their two year olds. We might be able to group plastics by shape, size, or even color - but we don’t always know what it is or where it came from.

“You know we’ve pulled out plastic bags that still have writing on them. And so there are these instances where you can definitely identify a source, but generally speaking imagine a piece of a plastic bag floating in the lake. You have no idea if that plastic bag came from Walmart, Kmart, or your local grocery store. There’s just no way to do that.”

And don’t forget, these are microplastics - microscopic plastics. It’s hard to study something so small. And Mason says right now there’s no machine that can help sort them. Every piece of plastic is hand-sorted by researchers in the lab.

“When I go and give talks, I’m not the best ambassador for recruiting students into my own program cause I’m like, ‘We spend hours and hours counting all of these little fibers. Who wants to come work for me?!’” [laughs]

With all that in mind, let’s go back to our question: If we know that microbeads aren’t the most abundant type of microplastic in our waterways, why focus on them?

“I think the reason that the microbead story took off so much is because it was one that we were able to identify the source of the microplastics or at least provide sufficient evidence to support the idea.”

Mason says when scientists compared the beads in the Great Lakes to the beads in personal care products - they looked almost identical. So it wasn’t that scientists were finding more microbeads than any other type of microplastic - it was just one of the first sources of microplastics they could name. It’s the same thing with the microfibers in synthetic clothing.

“We have laboratory studies showing that if you wash your clothes they’re going to come out in the wash - these fibers are going to break off and they’re going to go down the drain. We have our wastewater treatment plant study and a couple others that have come out establishing that these fibers make their way through wastewater treatment plants. And so we have the evidence there.” ?

Mason says she and other researchers are working as fast as they can to understand microplastics and stop them from polluting the environment. But she says it will take a long time for scientists to find all of the sources of microplastics in our oceans and rivers. So lawmakers and manufacturers need to act on the sources we do know - like the plastics in our sweaters and gym shorts.

For WMUK, I’m Rebecca Thiele.

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