Q&A with Dr. Sherri A. “Sam” Mason, Freshwater Plastic Pollution Researcher

Dr. Mason samples for microplastics in Chautauqua Creek in NY. Photo by Erica Cirino

The following is a Q&A with Dr. Sherri A. “Sam” Mason, a leading freshwater plastic pollution researcher and a Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) Scientific Advisor. Her work has made a major impact in shaping science, policy, and public awareness about plastic pollution in Earth’s waters.

Dr. Mason will be a panelist on our March 28 Webinar, Filtered Water: Preventing Billions of Plastic Bottles from Flooding U.S. Communities, in which we will discuss how proactive distribution of filters is a sustainable and affordable solution for providing clean water to the millions of people in the U.S. waiting to undergo the replacement of toxic lead pipes. Our panel will also explore why single-use plastic bottles are not the solution, as they are toxic to produce, can leach dangerous chemicals and microplastics into the water they carry, and end up in landfills or the surrounding environment.

Plastic pollution in freshwaters has been the main focus of your research, while historically so much plastic pollution research has focused on oceans. What first drew you to research this field of study?

I was aware of the issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans really since Captain Charles Moore’s work in the late 1990s. I was moving from finishing my PhD into my first teaching academic position and one of the classes I was charged with teaching was a general education class on “consumer chemistry.” I thought plastic was an interesting way to go about it. I would use plastic, we would talk about the molecules, and then eventually we would end up getting into plastic pollution as an issue in that class.

I’d been teaching the class for about 10 years when the crew of the U.S. Brig Niagara, a historic tall ship based in Erie, Pennsylvania (where I now currently live) expressed interest in creating a three-week environmental science course aboard their vessel. Because I was an atmospheric chemist, initially I hopped on board to talk about how chemicals of concern end up in the Great Lakes through atmospheric deposition. At that point in time, we understood this as the main way they got into these waters. But while I was out there looking at the water, I realized, this is the largest freshwater ecosystem in the entire planet. And as much as I’d heard about plastic pollution and the oceans, I’d never seen or heard about the plastic pollution in freshwater systems. I went back to my lab and did a literature review and discovered I hadn’t heard anything—because nothing had been done. That was really interesting to me. 

So then my lab and I reached out to 5 Gyres, and I guess the rest, as they say, is history. We decided to collaborate on that first study, which was done in 2012, with the research findings published in 2013. 

Why is studying freshwater so important? 

I know there are a lot of people who live on ocean systems, but there are more, especially within the United States, that live on freshwater systems. A lot of people, say in the middle of the United States—Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska—might not care that there’s plastic in the world’s oceans, but if you tell them that there’s plastic in their tap water, they care. Then the obvious other point of that is that we rely on freshwater for our survival, right? We can’t drink ocean water, but we drink freshwater. (Obviously, I understand that these are connected.) But freshwater is the elixir of life. Studying things that impact freshwater is critically important: Plastic pollution is one of those. 

What are some of the key research methods for studying plastic pollution in freshwater bodies, and how does collaboration play a role in your research?

Studying plastic pollution in freshwater is not any different than studying plastic pollution in the oceans: Grab sampling is advantageous in some cases. Using nets so you get volume-reduced sampling is important. In other ways, they both have their pros and cons. Doing sediment samples, air samples—you’re using the same techniques as you do in others, whether it’s fresh or oceanic water. 

How does collaboration play a role? I mean, my husband’s a political historian. He spends hours in the archives all by himself. And he does these, writes books and articles. It’s a very isolated endeavor. Natural science is not. We really don’t do work that is not in collaboration. And it’s key. I come into this field as a chemist. I’m kind of unique in that way. I think there’s many more that are ecologists or biologists and geologists. We each have our own understanding and our own perspective that we can bring to collaboration. Collaboration is instrumental in helping us to understand the variety of issues and impacts and ways to kind of look at the lenses by which we look at an issue. 

Your research on microplastic pollution has helped shape and pass important legislation, such as the Microbead-Free Waters Act. What particular impacts do policies have on addressing plastic pollution?

Policies are instrumental. I mean, we can do things at an individual level, and frequently when I’m giving public presentations, I talk about that. I encourage that. But I think we all understand that individuals can only do so much, right? There’s things that have to happen at a higher, systemic level. Me not going out every day and getting food in plastic or drink in a plastic container is important. But think about the magnitude of the issue that’s upstream from that. That’s where legislation comes in. It’s really looking at the systems that are far removed. The problem is bigger upstream from where we’re at. 

Policies are instrumental in really shifting the narrative. And there’s the general fact that a lot of people just don’t have time to think about this. Or care. That doesn’t make them bad people. I mean, if you’re working two or three jobs just to put food on a table and a roof over your head, you’re just not really going to think that much about the plastic that you bring home when you go to get your child dinner at a fast food restaurant. That’s just it. You have to handle those basic necessities first.

Caring about an environmental issue is honestly a privilege that not everybody can afford. You really have to have these policies put into place so that you’re removing that need from people. You’re removing the requirement on people. To act in some way, shape, or form. Because some people just don’t know. I see people all the time giving bottles of water to their kids to drink. I want to run up to them and say, do you realize the thousands of chemicals and microplastics that are in that bottle of water? If they knew, I doubt that they would give it to their kids. But they don’t know. They go to the store and they buy it. They buy it with the assumption that the government has policies and regulations in place to protect them. They think they don’t need to worry about it, because that should be the role of government—to protect us. Yet, right now, the government just isn’t. 

Several years ago, you swam across Lake Chautauqua to bring attention to proposed massive funding cuts to clean water programs. Why are these and similar programs important for addressing plastic pollution and other threats to the health of the lakes?

Clean water programs are almost like the highway system. We all use it. In this case, we’re all contributing to the issue that is plastic pollution in every fresh water system just through our daily actions. We drive cars and the tires wear, contributing to microplastics in the air and water runoff from roads. We wear synthetic clothes that shed microplastics. Oftentimes we don’t have a choice because more and more our clothes are being made out of synthetics. So, we’re all using plastic and we’re all contributing to this. The only way to really address it is through collective action. Again, this is the role of the government. And that’s the point of taxes and government funding: to pull collective resources to pay for those things that we are all using.

The Great Lakes have come a long way. Consider the original version of the Lorax: “They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary, in search of some water that isn’t so smeary, I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.” Dr. Seuss wrote that because back in the late 1960s and 1970s, the lake’s water used to regularly catch on fire because we were using the lakes as dumping grounds. Are there still issues with our Great Lakes? Absolutely. But in many ways, the issues we have now are different than ones we had back then. We’re not using them as the dumping grounds per se. We have some legacy pollutants from back then, when plastic pollution wasn’t an issue—I’m sure it was being polluted, but we didn’t know. Harmful algal blooms happened then and now. They come back. Now, because of agricultural runoff, while back then, it was largely because of discharge of detergents and sewage.

We have to have the funding there to be watching and monitoring and working to solve these problems. That’s where it comes from, these various clean water programs.

What advice would you give to individuals and communities—and young people especially—who want to take action to address plastic pollution? 

I do think it’s important to start with yourself. If you’re not making changes in your own life, then you really can’t go stand in front of Congress or city council and tell them that they need to make policy changes. Start on an individual level. Then you work at larger levels. You can spiral out from there.

The thing is, the things you can do are so big. They are so basic that I think people want it to be harder. Which is funny. I think when you say, well, just don’t take a plastic bag, they’ll say, “Okay, but I think I need to do something that’s much more complicated than that.” Like, no, really, just don’t do that. Don’t buy bottled water.

You will find ways in your life to reduce your plastic usage. I’ve made a game out of it. I tend to suggest that people take it one plastic product at a time. For example, when I ran out of toothpaste in a plastic tube, I said, “Okay. How am I going to get toothpaste now that doesn’t come in plastic?” So I found toothpaste tablets. I’ve tried different versions of the toothpaste tablets until I found one that I particularly like. Do the same with laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent, cleaning products at home…. Find ways to make those changes, and find products that are not wrapped in plastic. Initially a lot of those products may seem more expensive up front. But they save you money in the long run. You’re buying things that are much more concentrated, or refillable and reusable. My detergent that comes in a steel canister is rather expensive. But it’s good for 80 loads. (Or make your own home cleaning products for less!)

As you’re doing that, talk with people, buy gifts for people that help them to go plastic-free. Go to your city council, and share information with them to address this on bigger scales. Call your State Representatives and tell them to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. Because we desperately need to see that move forward. There are just not enough people who are aware of that suite of legislation and the pushing to make that happen. Find ways to get involved. Vote. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t expect the people that you’re voting for to be perfect. They’re not going to check all the boxes that you want them to check. They’re just not. Find people who are most closely aligned with what you find is important.

Understand that it is a marathon, not a sprint. Things evolve and change over time. I’ve witnessed it in my own life. And I really want to encourage people to do that.