Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Champlain focuses on microbead problem

By Sean Messier

New national legislation was passed by Congress in December that will ban companies

from manufacturing products containing microbeads. The bill goes into effect in mid-2017 and

comes after multiple states have already passed similar legislation. But while this bill helps at a

corporate level, plastic pollution will likely still affect the ecosystems of Lake Champlain for

some time, said Dr. Danielle Garneau, an environmental science professor at SUNY Plattsburgh.

According to LA-based research organization 5 Gyres co-founder and executive director

Anna Cummins, plastic pollution is a problem that, on a global scale, has not been adequately

addressed until recently - especially from the microplastics angle. Microplastics, by definition,

are small pieces of plastic that typically measure under 1mm in diameter and come in many

shapes and sizes, such as fibers and beads. They can be found in toothpastes, exfoliants, and

other personal products.

These items pass through drains in the home head to wastewater treatment plants - where they

are too small to be filtered out - and, in the North Country, are spat back into Lake Champlain.

Along the way, they act like magnets to the materials they pass through, which can include

dangerous toxins contacted at the treatment plants. Once in the lake, these pieces of debris are

often consumed by animals due to their miniscule size or similarities in looks to food that the

animals typically eat.

Garneau, along with her students, has been coordinating microplastic testing and research

on the waters of Lake Champlain since 2012. One of many Lake Champlain-based microplastic

research projects Garneau has had a hand in planning is the educational expedition of

expeditionary studies major Robert O’Connor, who will paddle a kayak from the northern tip of

Lake Champlain to Manhattan while taking water samples along the way. While O'Connor

originally had interest in taking such a trip for fun, the microplastic angle and contact with

Garneau and her students did not come to fruition until more recently.

“My skillset is based on the expedition portion and paddling and kind of doing the actual

trip itself,” O’Connor said. “So the fact that I can help provide scientific information just by

going on these trips is the coolest part about this expedition.”

The trip is still in the planning stages, but O’Connor expects to begin just north of Rouses

Point and end in Manhattan while stopping frequently in order to recover and send off various

test samples taken on the trip, including some taken with a makeshift trawl that will be connected

to his kayak. The samples will be sent to Plattsburgh to be integrated into the university’s

research as well as Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a Montana-based environmental

research organization, in order to help further analyze the pollution levels of Lake Champlain.

In addition to the trip itself, O’Connor will be working with two high schools - Saratoga

Springs High and Hudson Valley High - to discuss the trip’s findings, the sampling process, and

explain how the tests work to help increase consumer education by discussing the preventability

and alternative options.

The need for community education about microplastic pollution is one thing that most

experts can agree upon. According to Lake Champlain Committee Executive Director Lori

Fisher, many Lake Champlain-area consumers encountered through the Committee’s outreach

expressed real concern about the presence of plastic in their products and outrage at the negative

effects upon Champlain wildlife once they were actually made aware of the presence of

microbeads. Luckily, Fisher explained, a few simple changes in buying habits are enough to help

out at home.

“One of the things consumers can do is be judicious with their purchases,” Fisher said.

“There are plenty of effective soaps and toothpastes and body scrubs on the market that don’t use

plastics as cleaning agents.” For example, while microbeads do serve their purpose as exfoliants,

there are other, natural, biodegradable alternatives that are just as effective.

Additionally, Fisher said, many companies such as L’OrĂ©al have phased out microbeads

entirely without the aid of legislation, which makes it easy enough to find products that don’t

contain pollutants.

Cummins agrees with the importance of change at a consumer level, but notes that

corporations need to continually be held accountable for the hand they have dealt in microplastic


“There needs to be major design changes, bottom line,” Cummins said, explaining that

many companies and organizations are focusing too closely on banning things, such as plastic

bags, and not enough on actually changing the design of products so that they pose less of a

danger as pollutants and are altogether more recyclable.

Marcus Eriksen, Director of Research for 5 Gyres, echoes this sentiment, explaining that

big decision makers in the plastic industry value an increased output over efficient design, which

lowers the likelihood of an imminent solution to plastic pollution.

“The industry anticipates growth in the next 30 years from the current rate of over 300

million tons being produced annually to over a billion tons produced annually by 2050,” Eriksen

said, noting the lack of discussion on regulation at a recent plastic industry conference he

attended in Brussels. “The industry does not self-regulate well. The industry is not going to

replace plastic bags with another material, or replace plastic straws. It’s not going to advocate

that. They want plastic to be sold.”

This focus on production over efficiency is more profitable and leads to less costly

products for consumers, Eriksen said, but ultimately results in continued increases pollution.

In the meantime, though Garneau admits Plattsburgh's smaller population means it is less

drastically affected by microplastics than many places, she expects SUNY Plattsburgh’s research

into Lake Champlain’s pollution to continue for at least 2 more years. The Lake Champlain

Committee will also continue to study the issue, in addition to myriad other issues the lake is

facing, including invasive species and oil pollution.

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