This is an article from the fall 2019 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Today, the Midway Atoll hosts a species of bird called the Laysan albatross, 500,000 of which are born every year. Of these half-million young birds, about 200,000 die, leaving behind piles of bones and feathers. Amid their remains, in the place where their stomachs once were, lay piles of colorful plastics — bottle tops and pen caps and other fragments of garbage — things the birds ingested but that didn’t decompose with the birds’ flesh and feathers.
Plastic can be unexpectedly easy to find in the oceans, and easy for birds and other animals to mistake as food. When human trash misses the landfill, it can flow through rivers and lakes to the oceans, cracking and crumbling along the way into tiny pieces called microplastics. Those microplastics then accumulate into giant “garbage patches” in the ocean, merged and concentrated by the currents to create a peppery soup consisting of pieces of garbage no bigger than popcorn kernels.
Plastics haven’t always been a problem; they once were seen as a solution — a means of preserving the environment. Until the invention of celluloid to create billiard balls, demand for balls carved from ivory wiped out herds of elephants. Plastic eyeglass frames made it possible to produce tortoiseshell glasses without harvesting shells from hawksbill sea turtles. And furniture designers thoughtfully made products from plastic to spare forests from the ax.
But plastic has turned into a danger that the world did not anticipate, and some people are working hard to address the problem. Melissa Duhaime, a professor in LSA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, shares scientific research on the hazards of microplastics publicly and often, including at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., last year. The office of Michigan Senator Gary Peters invited her by email on a Thursday, asking her to prep and appear in the Senate on the following Tuesday — a tough, quick turnaround, which Duhaime figured was worth the extra effort.
At the hearing, Duhaime reported on what’s known about the issue, particularly in light of what she and her lab have studied in the oceans and on the Great Lakes. Her lab conducted the largest-ever survey of Great Lakes plastic pollution, finding plastic in every trawl they dragged through the water, at some of the highest concentrations ever recorded in the world.
“In the water, these plastics serve as sponges of persistent organic pollutants,” she says. Those pollutants include antibiotics, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, all of which have been found on microplastics in Lake Erie.
And because plastics make their way onto our plates via fish, into our water glasses, and even into our pints of beer, Duhaime says, “It’s certain that humans are consuming plastic.”
Today, Duhaime’s research focuses on how to keep water cleaner, and that means addressing the problem of plastics. She’s doing this work on land and on the water, aiming at an action plan with sustainable solutions.