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Microplastics, the smaller the piece, the larger the impact?

(Courtesy of Timothy Jean / Eagle Tribune) Dr. Weile Yan, an associate professor in UMass Lowell’s Civil and environmental engineering department, addresses the issue of microplastics in water at the Merrimack River Watershed Council’s (MRWC) fourth State of the Waters Conference.

Brigid Archibald
Connector Editor 

It is simple. Giving up plastics straws and bringing a reusable bag to the supermarket cuts down on plastics and helps save the environment. Or maybe it is not that simple?

“We have been using plastics very pre-readily since War World Two,” said Weile Yan, an associate professor in UMass Lowell’s Civil and environmental engineering department. “So, the total accumulated amount people estimate at about 6.3 Billion tons. And it is estimated about 80% actually goes to landfills.”

In 2015 textiles were the second-largest group of plastics, making up 15 percent Yan told a crowded conference room Northern Essex’s Technology Center Last Friday, Jan. 31.

Yan gave a presentation reviewing what studies have found about impacts of microplastics in water environments as part of the Merrimack River Watershed Council’s (MRWC) fourth State of the Waters Conference focusing on the next generation of pollutants and solutions.

Yan explained that microplastics are created as plastic is naturally weathered down.

“These smaller pieces are more of concern for the reason that they have more intimate contact with the ecosystem,” said Yan. “Smaller pieces of marital tend to have bigger surface areas.”

Plastic’s natural ability to repel water means it has the potential to create shelter for pathogens and toxic materials, said Yan. These plastics then have the potential to act as local concentrators in the water sources, introducing foreign substances.

Although the majority of the research surrounding microplastic relates to the ocean, Yan said, they have few reasons to believe the studies and knowledge that has accumulated so far is relevant to the Merrimack watershed.

“Significant source of microplastics in domestic wastewater is from the washing machines,” said Yan. The synthetic fibers in our clothes break down more and more each time we wear and wash them, said Yan, producing Secondary Microplastics.

Yan said that these synthetic fibers are by current estimates one of the most abundant plastics in the marine environment. The fact that they are so small and abundant means they have a lot of surface area and could act as Bactria vectors, sheltering Pathogens.

“Wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to remove plastics,” Said Yan, but a study that looked at water treatment plants worldwide showed plants caught over 90 percent of plastics and only less than two percent, likely these synthetic fibers, were going into the water.

These numbers are subjective to uncertainty said Yan because they are based on the data from literature, not a standardized test that was commissioned by someone.

“[These numbers are] pretty impressive, but we have to remember the sheer volume of plastic going into the effluent (treated water) that even one or two percent can contribute a significant amount of plastic into the environment,” said Yan.

Just as the research in the ocean can indicate something about the state of the Merrimack river, Yan said the Merrimack could possibly help researchers learn more about plastic issues in the ocean.

One study Yan explained at the conference, estimated that 90% of plastics were dense and sinking past areas where it was economically feasible to try and get samples.

Yan said that while rivers and oceans are very different when it comes to densities and currents, “the river is the perfect place to understand sediment fall, and from now we can infer what can happen at sea.”

Yan is currently working with a graduate who is considering a project looking at how people can adequately and effectively understand the effects of microplastics in water. Yan said she hopes to have the opportunity to research sediments in the river concerning microplastics one day.

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