“It was a complete accident,” recounts Anne McNeil, an LSA chemistry professor.
The serendipitous experiment in McNeil’s lab, which could have a big impact on the environment, began with diapers and rubber particles. While making adhesives from diapers in 2019, Takunda Chazovachii, one of McNeil’s former graduate students, put excess adhesive in a waste container. High school mentee Edwin Zishiri, working with micronized rubber particles, discarded these microplastics into the same waste bottle at the end of the day.
When they left the lab that day, the fluid in the bottle was black due to the dispersed rubber particles. The next morning, Chazovachii and Zishiri were perplexed but delighted to find a glob of black adhesive floating in a now clear waste bottle. The adhesive appeared to be covered in the microplastics.
They sent a picture of their discovery to McNeil. “I was excited,” McNeil recalls. “I thought, ‘We may have discovered a way to clean microplastics in water.’” From there, McNeil formed a coalition with Paul Zimmerman, a fellow chemistry professor; Brian Love, a materials science and engineering professor from the College of Engineering; and Jose Alfaro, an assistant professor of practice at the School for Environment and Sustainability, and the team wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“I thought maybe we could do what happened in this water bottle on a larger scale,” says McNeil. “Could we develop a technology, some kind of filtration system with adhesive, that could capture microplastics in a wastewater treatment plant?”
The team received a $2 million grant from NSF in 2020 to test the idea. The work is significant because microplastic pollution is plaguing the state and the Great Lakes, and a major contamination source is sewage treatment facilities. These plants, which aren’t designed to be able to filter out the extraordinary amount of microplastics from household laundry machine wastewater, consequently act as avenues for this type of landfill and farmland pollution.
“Data shows microplastics are disruptive to the animals that have been studied, like fish and oysters. There are consequences to them ingesting microplastics. But that same data doesn’t exist for humans yet, even though it’s known that we ingest microplastics as well through eating, drinking, and even breathing,” says McNeil.
The science behind the health effects of this pollution in humans isn’t well developed, but McNeil says that researchers already know microplastics are found in our blood, stool, and lungs.
“We don’t know if microplastics are innocent, but they probably aren’t. We need to find a way to make people care about this problem before we potentially find out the problem is worse than we thought,” she says. “I feel like the canary in the coal mine sometimes. But I’m hopeful. When people are educated, they feel more empowered to make a difference.”
Realizing education and outreach would be as important as research, McNeil recruited graduate student and aspiring chemistry teacher Safron Milne to join her cause. Milne eagerly accepted and led a team of other graduate students, including Henry Thurber, Malavika Ramkumar, and Julie Rieland—a team that would create an exhibit about microplastics pollution in Michigan for the Detroit Historical Society’s Dossin Great Lakes Museum.
According to McNeil and Milne, the museum exhibit, Microplastics: Here, There, Everywhere, open until April 2024, seemed like a perfect fit for the project because the display allows the public to digest the information at their own pace and come back multiple times over the course of a year, learning something new each time.
“I’m a creative person, and my career pursuit has been in education, so I was excited to work on something like this that combined both of those things,” says Milne. “I’m passionate about learning more about why STEM can be challenging or intimidating for students. So although I don’t work in a wet lab conducting experiments, I feel like I still can make an impact. I can inspire people and make STEM education more equitable and inclusive.”
McNeil, Milne, Love, and their team worked with museum staff over several months, discussing the exhibit and how to make sketches of their ideas come to life with different materials.
“Working with the faculty and students at U-M to tell this story has been great. It is so important to help educate our visitors about the environment and how everyday things we do affect the water and Great Lakes. Which made it a perfect exhibition for the Dossin Great Lakes Museum,” says Casie Blovsky, the museum’s exhibitions development manager.
The exhibit includes displays that showcase how microplastics pollution from the state’s lakes impact how much plastic might be in the yellow perch you caught and ate for dinner, or the beer or bottled water you drank while eating.
Milne, who created a pamphlet for museum goers with suggestions on how to reduce plastic waste, is leading the data collection and analysis of the public’s sentiments toward microplastic pollution. She also created an art piece for the exhibit made out of plastic found around campus and the Huron River to show the connection between macro plastics and microplastics.
“Macroplastics, like bottle caps, eventually will break down into microplastics. Her art piece uses cut-up macroplastics to show an acceleration of that natural process and how heavily polluted our waters are in a way that’s easier to see,” says McNeil.
“I thought using art, using a new medium to deliver a scientific message, might help people interpret this message differently and be more inspired to wash their clothes less or stop buying single-use plastic items,” Milne adds.
The team hopes visitors to their exhibit will feel encouraged to contact their state legislators and tell them they care about this issue. California is currently the only state with a mandated threshold for microplastic pollution in drinking water that treatment facilities will have to make sure they don’t exceed.
“In general, chemists produce a lot of plastic. We’ve helped make amazing materials that revolutionized the health care field. Polymers have advanced all of our lives. But it’s shortsighted to not consider the waste we’ve created in the process, and now is the time to start thinking about how we can be part of the solution,” says McNeil. “That’s why I take plastic waste and repurpose it using chemistry. It’s this work and my optimism about the future of sustainability that gets me out of bed every morning.”
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