What Can Students Do About Centre County’s Growing Microplastic Problem?

A recent study conducted by PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center took samples from 53 waterways in Pennsylvania. It found that there were microplastics in all waterways tested — including four in Centre County

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used a citizen-science protocol in order to identify this microplastic contamination. They tested for microplastics stemming from four different sources.

The first source was synthetic fibers. These come from clothing, fishing line, and bailing twine. The second was fragments of harder plastics or plastic feedstock. The third was plastic bag film and food wrappers. The last source was microbeads. These have been used in toiletries and cosmetic products but were banned in 2018.

These microplastics, excluding microbeads, were found in all four of the tested Centre County waterways.

These plastics are unable to break down into biodegradable components, so they just become smaller pieces of plastic over time.

In a press release, David Velinsky, vice president of Academy Science at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University, said that more research needs to be conducted in order to see how microplastics get into the food chain.

Velinsky believes that a possible way the microplastics get into the food chain is through accumulation over time. He said that DDT and PCBs tend to stick to the petroleum-based plastics in the water, which are then consumed by the fish and some birds.

“Once they ingest it, it accumulates within the body tissue,” Velinsky said. “If the tissue [concentration] gets high enough there could be some adverse effect to the organism. Most often the levels that we see cause a potential impact to those who are consuming the fish from the waterways.”

Although this is only one possible effect of microplastic pollution, there is still not enough known about plastics in the environment to completely brush the contamination of microplastics off.

Hudson Wagner, a field leader for PSU Climate Action as well as an intern for PennEnvironment last summer, said that the effects of plastic within the environment aren’t completely known yet, but he doubts they’re beneficial.

“We use millions of tons of plastics every day. It’s important to know what exactly that plastic use is doing to the environment and our bodies,” Wagner said. “Microplastics have not been around until the last century, so we are just starting to see and understand their effects. The information is critical to making smart decisions about our plastic use, especially locally.”

PennEnvironment conservation associate Faran Savitz, meanwhile, said he feels that there is no quick solution to microplastic contamination.

“We need to fundamentally change the way that society produces and markets the products that consumers buy,” Savitz said. “We need to change the ways in which we deal with waste in order to tackle this form of pollution. And we need to make the creators of this environmental hazard start to take responsibility for the products they put in the marketplace.”

PennEnvironment’s report also suggests several ways to reduce microplastics in our environment, some of which include phasing out single-use plastics, implementing plastic bag fees, creating producer responsibility laws, and preventing retailers from filling up landfills and incinerators with unsold clothing.

PennEnvironment really suggests only what can be done as a society on a legal level for plastic reduction. There are many practices that people can implement into their lives in order to reduce microplastic contamination in our waterways.

One of the main sources of microplastics found in the Centre County waterways were from fabrics and textiles. The way clothing is purchased and discarded is a big contender to this growing issue.

“With cheap clothing available all over the country at all times of the year, Americans are buying more products than ever (five times more than in 1980),” Wagner said. “The phenomenon is referred to as fast fashion, and it has some serious implications in human rights, water usage, water contamination, and air pollution.

Wagner added that students can become more sustainable when purchasing new clothing by swapping clothes with others, buying secondhand, or purchasing new clothes less often and from sustainable companies.

As for getting rid of old clothes, Wagner offers the solution of donating them or swapping the clothes since it will end up in a landfill if it is thrown out. Thrifting is also a handy option for college students on a budget.

Other than the microplastics from clothing, other plastics, like non-reusable water bottles and to-go containers, are a prominent part of the microplastics issue.

For college students living with few dollars to spend, it can be difficult to reduce using these types of plastics. However, it is not impossible.

“There are so many alternatives to plastics that are easily available to students,” Wagner said. “In campus dining halls, Green2Go containers are available to students as an alternative to the styrofoam to-go containers.”

Another solution that Wagner proposed is avoiding plastic water bottles and switching to reusable bottles. Not only is the plastic from the water bottles more harmful to the environment, but the actual water itself is also less regulated and more expensive. Wagner suggested purchasing a Brita filter because it will be cheaper in the long run.

For those living on campus, Wagner recommends purchasing silverware instead of always grabbing a plastic set from the dining halls. Plastic silverware is more wasteful and less convenient as time goes on.

Other than using the resources readily available, students can also be vocal about the need for change and more non-plastic resources across campus.

“It’s important for students to work to reduce their plastic usage, but sometimes there is no plastic alternative offered to students,” Wagner said. “Students can loudly support these efforts by speaking to administrators and student groups. The school should know that students care about plastic use.”

Wagner said he thinks that styrofoam use on campus is bothersome and is driven by cost reduction. 25% of on-campus students used the Green2Go program for on-campus meals before it was placed on hold last year.

Wagner said he’s hopeful that Penn State will advertise this program more once it re-establishes it or chooses to do away with styrofoam containers.

“Another opportunity [that Penn State can do] is to work with Pepsi to reduce plastic bottle use on campus by leveraging the coming contract renegotiations,” he said. “Pepsi has worked with other schools to eliminate single-use plastic bottles on campus and to replace them with glass, aluminum, or compostable containers, and they can do the same thing here.”

An example of where Penn State can be more conscious of plastic use is the Creamery. Wagner said that any person can notice the excessive and massive amounts of plastic being used and sold by the Creamery every day.

“One of Penn State’s largest resources is its student body,” he said. “If the school is serious about its carbon footprint and maintaining the health of its community, it has to listen to the dedicated, forward-thinking students and faculty that are already working on solving these problems. Far too often, the university voices support [for] sustainability initiatives, but then fails to back up that support with action.”

Despite any efforts of reducing our individual plastic use, calling for big companies, like Penn State, to switch to more sustainable practices and putting laws in place for microplastic reduction is inevitably the best solution. There is only so much a single student can do on a daily basis to limit their plastic use when the laws and resources are not there to help with their efforts.

“We aren’t going to completely solve the plastic crisis by bringing our reusable bags to the grocery store, but we have to remember that those
decisions add up and really do make a difference,” Wagner said. “I believe the real urgency is in pushing politicians and decision-makers to ensure that our systems operate safely. Your local government can make a much larger impact than bringing your own bag to the grocery store.”

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About the Author

Nicole Oronzio

Nicole is a sophmore majoring in journalism. She is from Aston, PA and loves hiking, watching movies, and trying new things. She has an obsession with her dog, Simba (aka. the love of her life). Just a fair warning: She will ramble on about literally any topic if given the chance. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @nicoleoronzio or email her at [email protected]

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