Tiny Plastics Could Cause Big Problems In Vermont’s Waters

Sep 3, 2015

While much discussion of water pollution in Vermont focuses on excessive nutrients, there’s another problem pollutant in our waters. 

Tiny bits of plastic – coming from everyday sources such as degraded plastic bags and flecks of fleece jackets – are seeping into Lake Champlain. Often smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, the plastics may seem inconsequential, but scientists say they carry chemicals, are being eaten by fish and moving up the food chain.    

“Plastic is a very unusual material because it's purely synthetic so it doesn't decompose the way say a paper bag would. It stays in the environment,” says Sherri Mason, a professor of Chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia. “It breaks into smaller and smaller pieces but it maintains its integrity as a piece of plastic.”

Microplastic is considered to be anything less than 5 millimeters. But Mason says the majority of the plastics that she and colleagues are finding in fresh water systems including Lake Champlain and the Great lakes are these even smaller pieces, less than one millimeter in size.                

Plastics are a relatively new material; production burgeoned after World War II. But Mason says plastics are one of the materials that’s least able to recycled.

90 percent of plastic isn’t recycled

“You can recycle a glass bottle forever, it never degrades it’s always glass,” she says. And if you take an aluminum can you can make about you know 90 percent of the next aluminum can.

“But plastic, because of the nature of the material is actually really, really difficult to recycle,” Mason says. “So less than 10 percent of the plastics that are manufactured every year actually get recycled typically.  Even those that are ‘recycled’ are really down-cycled.”

Mason gives the example of a plastic bag that gets reprocessed and turned into the lining of a jacket. But once that jacket has come to the end of its useful life, it ends up in a landfill.

“So about 50 percent of the plastics that are manufactured every year actually end up in the landfill,” says Mason. About 8 to 10 percent of them are recycled.

It's estimated currently that about 10 percent of plastics every year actually end up in the water.

“The issue is that eventually plastics are going to make their way into the food chain. These small pieces of plastic … look like food to a fish,” says Mason, and other organisms that live in the water like mussels and zooplankton don't choose their food but instead what they just filter feed and intake whatever is in the water.

The problem isn’t the plastic itself, it’s a fairly inert material.

“It's actually the chemicals on the plastic or in the plastic,” says Mason.

Plastic as a vehicle for chemicals

“So as an example, probably the most infamous chemical that's in a plastic is BPA. It's got a lot of attention a few years ago because it’s in baby bottles, and they've shown that that chemical will leach out of the plastic end up infant milk and then as the baby's eating it's drinking basically that BPA with it.”          

The problem with BPA is it’s been shown to be an endocrine disrupter, a chemical that, at certain doses, can interfere with the hormone system.

“Those chemicals are not chemically bound to the plastic and so they will leach out of the plastic,” says Mason. “In addition to that, as plastic is in the water, chemicals that are in the water will absorb or stick to the outside of the plastic.”

All of these chemicals are persistent biocumulative toxic compounds, says Mason. So they stay in the environment for a long time and move to higher and higher concentrations up the food chain. And the materials are toxic so they can cause reproductive and health problems in the ecosystem.  

“So the concern is that basically the plastic acts as a means to move these chemicals into the food chain, into fish though plankton up the food chain. And at the top of the food chain as us,” says Mason.

Mason says over 300 different aquatic organisms have been shown to be negatively impacted by the plastic that's in the water. And she says that number is only growing.

Turning a big ship

Plastics are ubiquitous in today’s environment. But Mason says there are ways we can reduce our usage. She says things as simple as not taking a plastic bag at the grocery store, avoiding bottled water – and even checking your beauty products – can reduce plastic leaching into the environment.

In addition to the regular degradation of plastic bags and tiny flecks of plastic that come off clothing in the washing machine, some beauty products also contain microbeads—tiny plastic pieces meant to exfoliate.

Doing something as simple as washing your face is contributing to the plastic that's in Lake Champlain,” says Mason. “If you see the word ‘polyethylene’ in your ingredients listing, it has plastic in it and you want to switch to a different face wash.”

These tiny plastics are being found in oceans, in the Great Lakes and Mason says her team’s initial data suggests that Vermont's waterways, including Lake Champlain, may have the same micro plastic pollution problem.   

Mason says she and a colleague have analyzed waste water treatment effluent in Vermont – that’s water that comes from our washing machines and shower drains – and have found plastic in it. This treated water containing plastic is released into Lake Champlain.

And Mason’s team is just beginning to analyze several decades of Lake Champlain water samples for plastic content. So far? “We are finding plastic within that water,” she says. 

Follow VPR News' reporting on water quality in Vermont in our ongoing series, Downstream.