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.

Plastic Pollution Coalition member As You Sow is challenging three of the world’s largest plastic resins manufacturers to disclose actions taken to prevent and remediate spills of pre-production plastic pellets into waterways during production or transport. Plastic pellets are estimated to be the second largest direct source of microplastic pollution to the ocean by weight.

After attempts to engage the companies in dialogue were unsuccessful, shareholder proposals were filed recently with Chevron, DowDupont, ExxonMobil, and Phillips 66, which own large petrochemical operations that produce plastics. The proposals ask for annual reports disclosing spills and measures taken to prevent and clean up any spills.

Most plastic products originate from plastic pellets, also known as pre-production pellets, or nurdles. Billions of plastic pellets are swept into waterways annually, adding to harmful levels of plastic pollution in the environment.

The chemical operations divisions of the four companies are members of Operation Clean Sweep, an industry initiative with a stated goal of reducing pellet spills through adoption of best practices to prevent spills, but this initiative has provided no public reporting in more than 25 years of existence.

“The industry’s effort to deal with pellet spills, Operation Clean Sweep, provides no transparency on the scope and nature of spills or efforts made to clean up,” said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of As You Sow. “Given what we know about the alarming rates of plastic leakage into oceans, companies can no longer hide behind vague pledges of best practices. They need to provide prompt and detailed disclosure about specific actions taken to prevent spills, and when spills occur, information on spill size, and actions taken to clean up.”

Pellets are similar in size and shape to fish eggs and are often mistaken by marine animals for food. Plastic pellets can absorb toxins such as dioxins from water and transfer them to the marine food web and potentially to human diets, increasing the risk of adverse effects to wildlife and humans.

Eight million tons of plastic leak into oceans annually, impacting 260 species, causing fatalities from ingestion, entanglement, suffocation, and drowning.  Plastic does an estimated $13 billion in damage to marine ecosystems annually. If no action is taken, oceans are expected to contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

One recent study estimated that up to 53 billion pellets may be spilled annually in the United Kingdom alone. Another study concluded that continuous leakage from one major industry production complex in Sweden releases up to 36 million plastic pellets annually. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined at least four companies in the last two years for spilling pellets into waterways in Southern California.

DowDupont and its subsidiaries reported 120 material spills in 2016 and 2017, but company information lacks specificity as to which may have involved pellets, whether spills occurred on land or waterways, and the extent to which spilled materials were recovered. In 2017, joint venture SCG-Dow disclosed four high-severity spills that may have released up to 11,000 pounds of plastic powder or granules. No information was provided as to what extent of that spill was recovered and what action was taken to prevent similar spills in the future.

For more information on As You Sow’s work on ocean plastics, click here.

Join our global Coalition.

By Emily DiFrisco

The images are shimmering and metallic—like minerals found in nature. But the subject of Erica DiGiovanni’s photographs is actually synthetic: plastic microbeads from common personal care products like face washes and toothpaste.

To create her installation Plastic Universe, DiGiovanni bought drug store face washes and strained the plastic beads with boiling water and a coffee filter. She photographed the plastic pieces using a microscope, making their tiny details visible to the human eye.

DiGiovanni chose to focus on plastic microbeads after learning about the problem of plastic pollution as a scuba diver. She has seen items like a plastic construction worker’s hat in the water, but she’s learned that it is the smallest pieces of plastic that pose the biggest threat to the ocean and marine life. 

The problem of plastic microbeads is complex: the beads make the journey from tube to drain to waste water treatment center, where they are too small to be filtered out. Microbeads end up in waterways and oceans, where they absorb toxic chemicals. The polluted particles are then eaten by fish and other sea animals.

Growing awareness and international campaigns have pushed the cosmetics industry to begin phasing out these harmful products, and countries such as the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Taiwan have initiated microbead bans, but many countries still prefer to rely on voluntary commitments from the cosmetics industry. 

DiGiovanni says the time is now to stop polluting the ocean. “I never thought I would be spreading awareness on environmental issues; I always thought that it was someone else’s problem to fix,” she explains. “But that all changed after I started scuba diving because I completely fell in love with the ocean and wanted to do something to help protect it from human destruction.”

She chose to focus on plastics because it’s something we can change in our lifetimes. “I encourage people to make more conscious choices,” says DiGiovanni. “Our daily choices have power in them. Choose food with less packaging and personal care products without microbeads. We each have voices we can use for change.”

For her part, DiGiovanni will continue to raise awareness about microbeads, plastic pollution, and the health of our oceans. The subject of her next photography project? Found plastics and washed ashore microplastics.

For more information about Plastic Universe, contact the artist.

Learn more about how to choose products without plastic microbeads.

Plastic ingredients are applied in a variety of leave-on and rinse-off formulations such as: deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, lipstick, hair colouring, shaving cream, sunscreen, insect repellent, anti-wrinkle creams, moisturizers, hair spray, facial masks, baby care products, eye shadow, mascara etc.* 

“Are we polluting the environment through our personal care?”

Whether we call them microplastics, microspheres, nanospheres or plastic particulates, a 2015 report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says we most certainly are. 

That’s why the international Beat the Microbead campaign has launched a new initiative: ‘Look for the Zero,’ which asks consumers to only buy 100 percent microplastic-free personal care products.

The objective of the campaign is to prevent plastic microbeads in personal care products from ending up in the sea. A Beat the Microbead app makes it easy to check whether a product contains plastic.

“Recent research shows that many more types of plastics are added to personal care products than previously thought,” according to Janna Selier, Beat the Microbead coordinator for the Plastic Soup Foundation, its parent organization based in Amsterdam. “It also shows that some plastic microbeads are replaced with bio-based microbeads which do not break down in water. On top of this, increase in the use of nanoplastics in cosmetics is a worrying development,” Selier cautions.

That is why the burden of proof has to be on the manufacturers of personal care products. “We are asking producers to declare their personal care products free of microplastics. This claim must be checked in each country.”

Plastic-free products will be included in the new Zero category of the Beat the Microbead website and app. The brands that do not use microplastics may carry the ‘Zero Plastic Inside’ logo. “In one glance, this logo makes it clear for consumers that a product is guaranteed 100 percent free of microplastics.”

There will be a ‘ZERO’ list added to the ‘RED’, ‘ORANGE’ and ‘GREEN’ lists on the Beat the Microbead website and app. The products on the ‘ZERO’ list are personal care products whose contents are 100 percent microplastic free. Producers themselves declare that their products are plastic free and they send the list of ingredients for checking. 

The Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza is the first to carry the Zero logo on all the personal care products of their house-brand Botanique.  

The Beat the Microbead coalition, which began in 2012, now comprises 79 NGOs in 35 countries. Find out more about the “Look for the Zero’ campaign on their website.

Plastic in Cosmetics

Read the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2015 report*

UPDATE Dec. 18, 2015: The Senate votes unanimously to pass H.R. 1321. Bill will go to President Obama for signature. Stay tuned — the Microbead-Free Waters Act.

By Elizabeth Glazner

Though smaller than a grain of sand, microbeads constitute a significant amount of pollution in our waterways. Also known as polyethylene microspheres, these tiny pieces of plastic are the colored dots in toothpaste and face wash designed to make a product look like it will polish your teeth or skin.

Fortunately, they may soon be banned in the US. In November, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was approved unanimously by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill will now be considered by the full House of Representatives, where it has early bipartisan support. It is currently sponsored by 31 Democrats and five Republicans.

STAY UPDATED on H.R. 1321, the Microbead-Free Waters Act

Reports about the harms associated with microbead pollution are quickly mounting. We know, for example, that polyethylene microspheres are found in disturbing concentrations in our oceans and our freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams. They wash down the drains in our sinks and through water treatment systems because they are too small to be caught in filters.

Once in our waterways, microbeads are small enough to be ingested by the smallest links in our food chain — microscopic plankton. In aquatic environments, these plastic particles can also attract and concentrate other contaminants, such as PCBs, DDT, and PBDE, which can then be eaten by larger organisms like fish, and potentially ingested by the humans that consume them. They have become so ubiquitous they are now being detected in our table salt.

Read more at Earth Island Journal.

Elizabeth Glazner is editorial director.

Photo: MPCA

Join the International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed groundbreaking legislation to ban micro-plastic particle abrasives, commonly referred to as “microbeads,” from being used in products such as facial scrubs, soaps, and toothpaste. Assembly Bill 888, introduced in February by Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), sets up the strongest protections in the country against the use of these unnecessary and toxic micro-plastic beads.

AB 888 may be a comprehensive solution to the growing problem of microbead pollution, though it does not phase them out until 2020. Said Bloom in a statement, “While other states have passed similar regulations, AB 888 was carefully crafted to avoid any loopholes that would allow for use of potentially harmful substitutes. This legislation ensures that personal care products will be formulated with environmentally-safe alternatives to protect our waterways and oceans.” 

RELATED: It’s Taken Years, But California is Finally Cleaning Up Microbead Pollution

A recent study by the San Francisco Estuary Institute found a staggering amount of micro-plastic pollution in the San Francisco Bay, which is contaminated in greater concentrations than any other U.S. body of water, with at least 3.9 million pieces entering the bay every day. Microbeads have also been found in the open ocean and marine debris piles, in rivers like the Los Angeles River, and in the Great Lakes. 

In a post, “4 Lessons Learned from Passing Microbead Legistlation,” 5 Gyres Institute reported that California environmental groups are using the tactic of “trading exemptions for loopholes” to make it easier for companies to adjust to the regulation. Over-the-counter drug formulations are more complicated and highly regulated, whereas personal care product manufacturers can easily swap natural substitutes, like apricot shells, for polyethylene and polypropylene microspheres. 

“Nevertheless,” the report states, “this bill (will) have a huge ameliorative effect on the marine environment because it bans all microbeads (with no loopholes) in personal care products, which dwarf over-the-counter drugs by volume.”

Microbeads have emerged as a prevalent form of pollution in our waterways and marine environment, contributing approximately 38 tons of plastic annually. While tiny, the size of microbeads is actually the biggest problem. Plastic microbeads used as exfoliants go down the drain. They are generally not recoverable through ordinary wastewater treatment, and thereby get discharged into the environment.  As a result, these plastic microbeads are found in all oceanic gyres, bays, gulfs and seas worldwide, as well as inland waterways. A single product can contain as much as 350,000 beads.

Microbeads can have negative health effects on marine life and humans. Most microbeads are not biodegradable and can contain various toxins such as DDT, PCBs (flame retardants), and other industrial chemicals. These toxins can be absorbed by marine life and mammals that ingest the beads, mistaking them for food. Because fish ingest these particles and absorb the toxins in their flesh, many in the scientific community worry about the impacts on the fish, crabs, and shellfish that humans eat. Plastic microbeads pose other direct threats to human health as well. Plastic microbeads used in toothpaste can get stuck in a person’s gums which then collect bacteria and can lead to periodontal diseases. 

Assembly Bill 888 Registered Sponsors

5 Gyres Institute, 7th Generation Advisors, Azul, Breast Cancer Fund, California Association of Sanitation Agencie, California Coastkeeper Alliance, California League of Conservation Voters, Californians Against Waste, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Center for Biological Diversity, Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, Central Marin Sanitation Agency, City of Palo Alto, City of San Francisco, Clean Water Action, Cleanups for Change, Community Environmental Council, Costa Mesa Sanitary District, Delta Diablo, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Environment California, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Environmental Working Group, Green Sangha, Heal the Bay, Health Care Without Harm, Hidden Resources, Las Virgenes–Triunfo Joint Powers Authority, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, Napa Recycling & Waste Services, Natural Resources Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Plastic Soup Foundation, Ross Valley Sanitary District No. 1, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco Water Power Sewer, Save Our Shores, Sierra Club California, Surfrider Foundation, The Story of Stuff Project, Victor Valley Wastewater Reclamation Authority, Wildcoast, World Society for the Protection of Animals

Top photo: 5 Gyres Institute; below, floating microbeads found in facial scrub, credit: Robert Simmons.