Editor's note: This is Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky's column in response to the recent article looking at four studies that highlight the issues of microplastics in our nearby waterways. Check out that report here.
Drawn to the banks of the Penns Creek near Selinsgrove by the welcomed seasonal call of the spring peeper, it didn’t take long for me to notice some unique debris left behind by high water events a number of weeks prior.
Wrapped around a new growth branch of a creek-side bush – hanging out over the water – was a decayed leaf littered with tiny fibers. After collecting some samples, I tested them using methods learned via recent interviews for the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association deep-dive article on microplastics.
First, I poked and prodded the tiny fibers with tweezers to see how they’d react. I then used the hot needle test – in the presence of a very hot needle, plastic pieces will melt or curl. Biological and other non-plastic materials typically will not.
The fibers I found tangled on the leaf wrapped around a small branch were definitely synthetic.
The mini-study is just another example of the proliferation of microplastics within and along our waterways. We outlined four other studies conducted both statewide and locally in our recent look at the microplastic problem.
“The fact that we can turn over a rock in any part of our region and find microplastics is notable. It would be easy to just say that this is a Bethlehem or Philadelphia problem, but then you realize just how much of an issue it is right here in our region,” said Susquehanna University professor Dan Ressler in our microplastics report. “There is a lot of plastic from all corners of consumer life, from plastic bags and shipping materials to the plastic utensils we use for eating – they all break down and wind up where we never expected them.”
The proliferation goes beyond the environment and into our bodies. Microplastics were found in every human tissue studied by graduate students at Arizona State University. In December 2020, microplastic particles were found in the placentas of unborn babies for the first time.
Perhaps more daunting than the staggering evidence of microplastics littered throughout our river-based resources (and ourselves) is the task of how to realistically make changes.
Plastics recycling, using reusable bags when grocery shopping, avoiding plastic straws and utensils in favor of those that can be washed and used again – these all help, but the magnitude of the problem suggests the need for bigger response.
One common theme among each of the studies we shared – including my impromptu experiment from the banks of the Penns Creek – is the drastic increase in plastic microfibers in our waterways. These are tiny, mostly impossible-to-see synthetic threads that mostly come from our clothing via wash cycles that discharge high amounts of fibers into our water table.
In a new study by the Ocean Wise conservation group and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, researchers sampled seawater from across the Arctic and found synthetic fibers made up around 92 percent of microplastic pollution. Of this, around 73 percent was found to be polyester, resembling the dimensions and chemical identities of synthetic textiles – particularly clothing.
As Susquehanna University professor Jennifer Elick’s 2019 class found via studies on a Selinsgrove laundromat wash cycle and nearby wastewater treatment facility, the synthetic fiber situation isn’t just an arctic seawater problem. It is a major issue right here in the Susquehanna Valley.
Shockingly, one study from a few years ago suggests that a typical load of laundry can release as many as 700,000 microscopic plastic fibers into the environment. Changing the type of clothing you wear and wash can help improve this statistic, but the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association would like to take this process one step further.
Washing machine manufacturers need to make it a priority to add effective microfiber filters to their products – filters that not only strain out these microplastics but do it in a way that is not cost-prohibitive in the sale price of the washer and that makes maintaining the filter manageable for everyday family use.
The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association will be contacting these manufacturers and legislators to find a realistic solution for this specific microplastic source. Until then, there are a few products on the market that households can utilize.
One is the Microplastics LUV-R, which has been backed by the Pennsylvania Master Watershed Steward Program. It has an 87 percent initial efficiency capture of micro plastic fibers and 100 percent rating at saturation of filter. The unit costs around $150, can be hooked up via your washer’s outtake plumbing and requires cleaning every two to three loads of laundry.
Another is the Cora Ball, an item you put in your washer to collect microfibers. It isn’t as effective as the previous product, but is a fraction of the price and much easier to use.
Ultimately, the microplastic issue is here to stay, and something that will only improve if we all work together for realistic change.
As PennEnvironment microplastics researcher Faran Savitz shared in our recent microplastics report: “Plastic is really everyone’s problem, and clearly the system we are using now to deal with it isn’t working when you realize just how much of it is out there.”
To connect with Riverkeeper John Zaktansky about this topic, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.