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Microplastics research project gives students valuable lab experience


West Olive sophomore Braxton Dekorte works sediment through a sieve, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, Biosciences Building. Dekorte, who is doing an independent honors study, began by learning how to perform certain tasks, and will later work on his own tasks.

Plastic in the environment is a common sign of human activity, but many of these pieces of plastic are too small to notice. 

Microplastics, according to post-doctoral researcher Amanda Suchy, can be extremely small; usually between 0.3 and 5 millimeters. These minuscule pieces of waste often wind up floating through waterways and deposited in wetlands. 

Plastic microbeads in cosmetic products were banned in 2015, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Microplastics can still be found in the environment as remnants of those products, or as broken down pieces of larger plastics. 

Suchy is working on a research project to study just how common microplastics are in coastal wetlands around the Great Lakes. She works alongside students and biology professor Donald Uzarski. The project is part of the Coastal Wetland Monitoring Program and is partially funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. Suchy said interested students are welcome and wanted to join in their efforts and get valuable research lab experience. 

Graduate student Corrin Logan said the lab “goes hand-in-hand” with her thesis and has been a learning opportunity for her. The project has connected her with other researchers in Michigan, including those in the CWMP and the EPA. The researchers also examine metals and nutrients in their samples. Logan leads the nutrient analysis aspect. 

“Almost everything about this project has been pretty new to me with the exception of the nutrient analysis,” Logan said, “but I never knew how to look for microplastics. You think about how much plastic and nasty human impact you see on coastal wetlands, but you don’t think about the little teeny tiny pieces that are affecting something as huge as nutrient cycling. I’ve learned a lot about how all of that intertwines and why human impact needs to be heavily regulated in these areas, so it’s kind of fun.” 

According to Suchy, samples were collected from coastal wetlands all around the Great Lakes area. The sites were chosen based on their proximity to urban areas to discover whether more human activity leads to more plastic. Suchy anticipates that it does.    

“This is an incredible project that is going to have such a big impact on the future of this lab in the future of coastal wetlands,” Logan said. “And I'm just so excited to see what the results will look like.”