Freshwater’s Macro Microplastic Problem

In the winter of 2014, Sherri “Sam” Mason, a chemist at the State University of New York at Fredonia, sent two of her undergraduate students out to the shore of Lake Erie near campus to volunteer to fillet the fish that sport fisherman caught. The deal: the students could keep the guts. They took the fish innards back to campus and painstakingly sorted through the contents. They were hunting for tiny particles of plastic that Mason and other researchers have shown are abundant in the waters of the Great Lakes.

They didn’t have to look hard. Her team found plastic in the majority of the fish they tested, including popular fare like brown trout and perch. Some of them were broken-down fragments; others were tiny pellets manufactured by the plastic industry that get melted down and molded into products.

But the biggest source they found were miniscule plastic fibers, the kind that are spun into synthetic clothing. One day, Mason grabbed one of the intestines, smeared it against a glass plate, and brought it under a microscope. “You could actually see the fibers enmeshed in the gastrointestinal tract,” she says. Rather than passing through the fishes’ guts, the fibers seemed to be woven into them.

Plastic pollution is not just a problem of the oceans, and a wave of research is showing just how widespread it is. In sampling expeditions, Mason and her colleagues have counted tens to hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic per square mile of surface water in the Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater system.

Like in the oceans, the bulk of the pollution in rivers and lakes is not in the form of plastic bottles and other large pieces, but tiny pieces called microplastics that would be hard to spot. Microfibers represent up to 85% of the plastic pollution found on shorelines around the world.

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