Students Learn Plastic Waste Is More Than an Eyesore in Waters

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University of Buffalo electrical engineering student Andrea Martinez shows off the first sample of plastic waste collected. Photo: University of Buffalo
University of Buffalo electrical engineering student Andrea Martinez shows off a sample of plastic waste collected. Photo: University of Buffalo

The Styrofoam and plastics that wash ashore most of the lakes in this country are eyesores no one wants to see. But that’s just a small part of the problem, a group of students researching plastic pollution in the open waters of the Great Lakes recently learned.

“We saw people swimming just a hundred feet away from the facial scrubs and Styrofoam balls we picked out of the water, on the surface,” Andrea Martinez, a senior electrical engineering major at the University at Buffalo, told UB’s media relations department. “I don’t know about you, but when I swim, I swallow some of the water. I don’t want to swallow some of the things I pulled out of that water.”

Led by Sherri A. Mason, associate professor of chemistry at State University of New York at Fredonia, the students were part of the first-ever survey for plastic pollution within the open waters of the Great Lakes. The seven-day voyage that began in Montreal, crossed Lake Ontario and ended in Toronto was part of an Environmental Research and Communications course offered by Pangaea Exploration. Pangaea, an organization dedicated to marine exploration, education and conservation, offered a similar course in summer 2012, with another set of students aboard the program’s 72-foot yacht, the Sea Dragon.

Mason hopes the research affected the way the students think and live. “I always want to encourage people to be thinking about their own lives and what they can do,” she told Discovery News. “If they’re not going to go out and clean up the beach, they can find ways to reduce plastic in their own lives, especially single-use plastics. Forgo the straw. Stop buying disposable plastic bottles. Bring reusable bags so you don’t need to take plastic bags home.”

The students working with her got the message. For instance, before the study Martinez understood that people litter, but she didn’t know how much plastic actually makes its way into the water, stays around for decades and breaks up into small pieces that wildlife mistake for food.

But since taking part in the research, she can no longer ignore her own personal use of plastics. She won’t eat on Styrofoam plates, and her head fills with unkind images of the toll plastics take on our ecosystems: images like birds and fish eating the toxic waste, which gives them the feeling of being full so they don’t get the actual nutrition they need.

Students get a quick class on sailing as part of the Environmental Research and Communications course to research plastic waste in the Great Lakes.
Students get a quick class on sailing as part of the Environmental Research and Communications course to research plastic waste in the Great Lakes. Photo: University of Buffalo

While sailing through the Thousand Islands, a chain of 1,864 islands on the Canada-U.S. border, the students got a close look at how human life can have a negative impact on the environment. On Sugar Island, they sampled water from two locations only 20 feet apart. One was near an area inhabited by people and the other was not. Drastic differences were found between each site’s water pH, temperature, quality and wildlife, though they were only a short distance apart.

Martinez thinks people should decide they can help solve problems like plastic waste in our waterways, rather than thinking it is beyond their reach. “We’re all humans and we share this Earth; it’s everyone’s problem,” she said.

She did her part — for now. The study is the first to officially add the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem, the Great Lakes, to the list of natural places that are affected by plastic pollution. And the study’s leader, Mason, is currently working on a manuscript to describe her findings for later submission to scientific journals.