Huge shout out to The Nevada Independent and Dr. Monica Arienzo, a researcher at the Desert Research Institute, and author Daniel Rothberg for highlighting this incredibly important story that follows. Reprinted here with permission.
We, too, care deeply about microplastic pollution and have developed a micro-fiber filter box for commercial washing machines that can capture up to 99% of the plastic fibers that were released the last time you washed your yoga pants.
Tiny specks of degraded plastics have been documented in the snowpack around Lake Tahoe — and in the lake itself. They have been found in the Las Vegas Wash. The phenomenon is not unique to Nevada. Microplastics, the end product of our plastic consumption, have been found in ecosystems across the world, even in remote areas.
Microplastics are small — less than 5 millimeters — but they are not uniform. They can have different shapes and vary in size. Microplastics from clothing can appear as synthetic fibers, whereas degraded plastic from bags or water bottles might take on a different composition.
That is what we know, and it’s a trend that researchers have documented for many years now. But there are a lot of open questions when it comes to microplastics. Where exactly do they come from? How do they spread throughout the environment? And how harmful are they?
“There is a lot we don’t know about microplastics, and this is part of why it’s so exciting as a scientist,” said Monica Arienzo, who leads a microplastics lab at the Desert Research Institute.
Arienzo is looking to answer some of the many questions posed by microplastics, and she is focusing on the distribution of microplastics in areas like the Sierra, environments characterized by snowpack. In an area like Lake Tahoe, snowpack melts into streams and makes its way into the lake. Researchers want to better understand how microplastics move through watersheds.
Arienzo’s work was recently recognized with an award from the National Science Foundation that comes with a five-year grant to fund microplastic research. We spoke to Arienzo about the growing body of science investigating microplastics and what questions she wants to answer.
There are a lot of unanswered questions, and a big one is trying to figure out where they originate and how they spread. Current research, specific to the Western U.S. has uncovered microplastics in snow, rainwater, freshwater streams and freshwater lakes, Arienzo said. In her own experience, she said basically everywhere she has looked, she has found microplastics.
“We have found microplastics in fairly remote areas,” she said. “So really we are getting this picture that these are fairly ubiquitous, so we’re finding them all throughout the environment.”
But there are a lot of questions about where they originate. Arienzo’s lab has looked at clothing dryers, which vent hot air outside of your house, as one potential pathway for microplastics. In addition to understanding how they spread, other research groups are looking at the toxicology of microplastics in ecosystems and the chemical variations in how microplastics are composed.
A starting point in the Sierra. The Desert Research Institute’s microplastics lab has focused locally on the Sierra and the Lake Tahoe Basin. The National Science Foundation grant, Arienzo said, will look at the distribution of microplastics across the Sierra and over a multi-year period.
“Do we see variations as we move from Tahoe, where there’s a lot of people that are recreating, to other parts of the Sierra where maybe there’s more remote locations,” she asked. “Do we see a different amount or type of plastics? And then how does it change as we go from year to year?
It’s those types of questions that Arienzo said hopes to answer with the new grant.
Whether we like it or not, nearly all of us have a connection to plastics, and we can make an effort to curb our use. One of the things Arienzo said she finds fascinating about studying microplastics is the human connection that we all have to plastics. They are in many everyday products: our clothing, our car tires, our computer keyboards (just to name a few).
“It’s not this sort of ambiguous chemical,” Arienzo said. “We all interact with plastics and we all have a role to play in helping to reduce our plastic use [and] encourage recycling.”
Even proper plastic disposal, in addition to reuse, can make a difference. This week, divers are set to begin circumnavigating Lake Tahoe to help clean up underwater trash that has made its way into the lake, as the Reno Gazette Journal recently reported. Arienzo said divers in Tahoe find a wide variety of trash, including plastic materials that can break down into smaller bits.
“So we know that people still aren’t properly disposing of trash, which is unfortunate,” she said, noting the plastic trash found in Lake Tahoe. “But hopefully we can all do a little better.”
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