Plastic has infiltrated the Earth’s environment. From Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench, the ubiquitous material has been found in the air, the water, and even in the ice. URI is harnessing the expertise of researchers from all disciplines to address this global crisis, particularly in the area of marine plastics. Our alumni are equally engaged, tackling the problem from a variety of important angles.
By Diane M. Sterrett
Last summer, URI Graduate School of Oceanography professor Brice Loose and his team found a disturbing amount of plastic in Arctic sea ice cores collected from floes during an 18-day Northwest Passage Project expedition. Sea ice tends to concentrate everything that is in the water, including nutrients, algae, and microplastics.
“Even knowing what we knew about the occurrence of plastics across the globe—for us, it was kind of a punch to the stomach to see what looked like a normal sea ice core taken in such a beautiful, pristine environment just chock-full of this material that is so completely foreign,” Loose says.
Plastics are chemical compounds that have proven to be inordinately useful for humanity—disposable syringes for example. The problem is, they don’t degrade on a human timescale. And once discarded, they begin breaking down into micro- and nanoplastics and drift into the air and water, becoming virtually impossible to recover.
The news is alarming, and inescapable. PBS NewsHour reports that over 9 billion metric tons of plastic has been created since the end of World War II. National Geographic reports that today, about 40 percent of the plastic produced each year is single-use plastic (SUP), and that about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations every year. And a 2016 World Economic Forum report said about one truckload of plastic waste is dumped into our oceans every minute.
What’s more, increasing production may soon outstrip our ability to deal with it. Plastic production has increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons in 2015, and is expected to double by 2050.
THREAT TO PLANET AND PEOPLE
Peter J. Snyder, URI’s vice president for research and economic development and professor of biomedical sciences, says the problem is, indeed, growing exponentially and we don’t fully understand its ramifications.
“It’s only been since the early 1970s that we have recognized uncontrolled ocean pollution from plastic waste,” he says, “and alarm bells didn’t start ringing until 20 years ago.”
You’ve likely seen distressing videos of sea turtles with straws stuck in their nostrils or whales hopelessly tangled in monofilament fishing line. “Those macroplastics threaten pinnacle species in the food chain and therefore the entire food web that we depend on,” Snyder explains. “Bacteria, viruses, and invasive species could also adhere to micro- and nanoplastics and be transported by ocean currents. Nanoplastics aggregate as biofilms on the surface of the ocean and are ingested by all forms of aquatic life, which end up in the tissue of the fish and shellfish we eat. And we’re finding them in our own bodies.”
The effects of plastic on human health are less well-known, though a new Center for International Environmental Law report suggests exposure to plastics poses distinct toxic risks and intersecting human health impacts ranging from cancer to neurotoxicity, low birth weight, and cardiovascular disease.
Angela Slitt, a professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, has researched the health impacts of bisphenol A (BPA), and how exposure early in life affects the liver through fat accumulation and increased body weight.
“There is a real concern for exposure to micro-plastics. They have a lot of different components in them, possibly BPA. Microplastics might also act as carriers for perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are found in things like Teflon and firefighting foam, called ‘forever chemicals’. We need to know more and to understand how to enjoy the conveniences of day-to-day life without having these types of chemical exposures.”
WE NEED SOLUTIONS NOW
“Our food web is at risk,” says Dennis Nixon, M.M.A. ’76, director of Rhode Island Sea Grant and professor of marine affairs. “If scientists are correct, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. When you start messing with life in the ocean, you’re messing with the one factor that is regulating the Earth’s temperatures and storms. So by adding this much plastic to the ocean, you are affecting the ability of life itself to function.”
Pre-pandemic, there was international recognition of the looming crisis and the idea that we have limited time to impact it in a meaningful way. But COVID-19 increased demand for plastic production.
“We are now producing, using, and throwing away more gloves, masks, drapes, curtains, and surgical gowns than ever before. If you walk beaches, even here in Rhode Island, it’s not a shock to find single-use plastic surgical masks or gloves. Until we have a treatment that’s effective, I don’t see an end in sight,” Nixon says.
The Economist reports that consumption of SUPs may have grown by 250–300 percent in the United States since the coronavirus took hold, according to the International Solid Waste Association. That includes essential personal protective equipment as well as the return of plastic grocery bags, a boom in e-commerce packaging, and restaurant food packaged in single-use containers for takeout and delivery. In addition, the pandemic has curtailed some recycling programs for SUP bags.
“The pandemic has set aside all sorts of new legislation and municipal regulations that were just beginning to take effect with the hope of causing some improvement,” Snyder says. “Collectively there had been 15 years of slow consumer education and behavior modification to re-think single-use plastics, to re-use cups, don’t ask for straws, and bring canvas bags to the market. All those little things have incremental benefits. That’s all being undone. What’s it going to mean to try to reverse that now?”
URI TACKLES PLASTICS
URI students, faculty, and alumni are involved on many fronts and in a wide range of research. Last winter, Snyder hosted a brainstorming session of experts from across the University to discuss how URI could tackle the problem. As a research university, he says, URI has tremendous value to bring to this global effort.
“We have one of the world’s finest schools of oceanography and one of the nation’s most productive colleges of environment and life sciences. Our research strengths are squarely within environmental science, the study of human impacts on the environment, coastal resiliency, ocean health, marine biology, and the impacts of global warming. We have talented and passionate people, and I see a lot of capability to tackle these problems. That includes engineering, polymer chemistry, marine biology, marine affairs, and public policy, as well as educational, social, and cultural initiatives that we need to take to really wrap our arms around the complexity of this problem.”
Snyder’s brainstorming group mapped all the ways plastic gets into the marine environment and how URI could identify approaches to mitigating the problem. The result looked like a giant spiderweb. Understanding that no single entity can solve everything, the group worked to distill that web into areas where URI could have the greatest impact.
From that web grew a University-wide strategic initiative with a working title of “Plastics: Land to Sea.” Currently writing its position statement, the group is refining thrust areas for research.
“We’re taking an inordinately complex problem and identifying five research areas we can go deep in and really have an impact. We’ve been working with faculty across the University as well as external partners and will release our initiative with a new website and campaign this fall,” Snyder reports.
One of the five research thrust areas is the textile industry and microfibers, apt in light of Rhode Island’s industrial history. Throughout the water column, 85 percent of microplastic particles are shed from textiles. In addition, more than 100 million tons of textile fibers made from plastics are produced each year. Wearing and laundering them results in the continual shedding of microfibers into the environment, which are not visible or retrievable. Many end up in the marine environment and by then it’s too late, literally water under the bridge, says Snyder.
“URI has textile scientists working alongside marine biologists, engineers, pharmacists, and chemists—as well as textile manufacturers—to inform research on new generation textiles that shed less. But it’s not enough to invent these things, you have to implement them. We need social and political scientists to help us design public policy and eventual legislation,” says Snyder.
NEW PURPOSE FOR OLD BOATS
Nixon, in his role as director of Rhode Island Sea Grant, leads research devoted to improving the management of Rhode Island’s coastal waters. Seven years ago, the Rhode Island Marine Trade Association (RIMTA) brought a problem to his attention.
“There was a tremendous surplus of end-of-life fiberglass boats rotting away and landfills were not eager to accept them. They challenged me to find an environmentally sustainable solution,” Nixon says.
A breakthrough came when he and then-research assistant Evan Ridley ’15, M.A. ’17, attended a marine show in Europe and discovered German scientists were working on a process to turn fiberglass windmill turbines into virgin cement. They thought: Why not use the same process on boats? They began to solve the technical issues and Ridley wrote his master’s thesis on the topic.
“We solved the, ‘Can you do it?’ question, but it was important for industry to own the process,” Nixon explains. “So we transferred all the knowledge over to RIMTA and Evan went from being my graduate student to directing the project. Rhode Island is now a national leader in solutions for end-of-life fiberglass boats and other states are calling on us. It’s a great example of how to use the best of science and engineering to help a real pollution problem.”
Over at RIMTA, the project is now named the Rhode Island Fiberglass Vessel Recycling program. Ridley reports they have recycled 60 tons of fiberglass taken from more than 45 boats diverted from Rhode Island landfills and junkyards since they began formal recycling activities.
“The work ahead is focused on developing partnerships and logistic pathways that give us greater capacity to deal with the millions of boats awaiting end-of-life management,” Ridley says. “The ultimate intention is to continue refining the process and our capacity to supply material to end users in the cement manufacturing industry and beyond, while documenting and reporting to stakeholders.”
WHAT’S HIDING IN OUR OYSTER BEDS?
While Nixon focuses on macroplastics, Andrew J. Davies, associate professor of biological sciences, is working at the other end of the spectrum, microplastics. He is also lead principal investigator for the Ocean State Initiative for Marine Plastics (OSIMAP), a group he formed to serve as a central point for coordinated research efforts. They are working to better inform stakeholders and the public about the impact of marine plastics on the ocean.
“We’re the Ocean State and we have such an incredible natural environment right on our doorstep, but we don’t have that much quantifiable information about plastics in the environment,” he says. “We don’t know that much about how many plastics there are, where they’re coming from, or where they’re going. Establishing that baseline is really important.”
One OSIMAP project is studying how microplastics affect commercially important species to understand how changes due to seasons, rainfall and weather patterns, and human behavior affect microplastics levels.
Coleen Suckling, assistant professor of sustainable aquaculture, runs URI’s clean laboratory, the facility needed for the intensive work of extracting, quantifying, and characterizing the microplastic samples they collect.
Suckling, an eco-physiologist gaining recognition as a leading expert in sea urchin aquaculture, is researching how animals interact with and are impacted by microplastics. “My expertise within this project is to determine whether the physiology of oysters, crabs, and sea urchins is impacted by the type and concentration of microplastics in our coastal waters. To assess this, I’m measuring their growth, metabolic rate, and energetic needs.”
“We don’t expect that current field concentrations of microplastics will have that much of a negative impact on the oyster itself,” Davies explains, “but we anticipate there are indirect effects, for example on the oyster’s reproduction or resilience to disease.”
Rory Maynard-Dean ’20, an OSIMAP intern, worked with Davies using the clean lab’s Raman spectroscope—a type of laser beam—to determine the chemical composition of microplastic particles in Narraganset Bay. So far, they have identified polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene microbeads, as well as a few synthetic pigments, and are continuing to identify and quantify microplastic pollution and its impact on important species.
A graduate of URI’s textiles, fashion merchandising and design program, Maynard-Dean’s background provides a unique perspective. He says his OSIMAP experience was rewarding and challenging.
“Having spent my undergraduate years learning about the negative environmental impacts of the fashion industry and consumer habits, I was left with a desire to reform the systems that contribute to environmental and ecological destruction. Working on the OSIMAP project and specifically with the Raman spectroscope has proven to be the perfect platform to help develop a clearer understanding of the extent of plastic pollution and its environmental and ecological impacts.”
KNOWING MORE ABOUT MICROPLASTICS
Another OSIMAP project is measuring the quantity, sizes, and types of microplastics in Narragansett Bay and their movement. Davies built a complex pump and filtration system to increase sampling volume and provide more reliable results. This summer, URI students Cara Megill ’21 and Jacqui Roush ’23 used the filter to gather samples from a dozen sites around the bay. They found microscopic pieces of plastic at every site they tested, from Point Judith to Providence, as well as the middle of the bay. Back in the lab, they’re analyzing samples to identify the sources of the microplastics. So far, they’re seeing plastics that look like they are from fishing line and laundered clothing.
“I’ve always been passionate about studying plastic pollution, and this research has solidified that interest,” Megill says. “I especially want to study the effects of plastics on coral reefs. The field and lab work I did this summer has convinced me I’m heading in the right direction.”
“There are so many different dimensions to the microplastics problem that it’s going to take multiple projects, multiple principal investigators, and multiple years to really start to understand it,” Davies says. “It’s an impactful area of research that represents a challenge for scientists, managers and stakeholders.”
PLASTICS IN THE FOOD WEB
Kelton McMahon, assistant professor of oceanography, is in the beginning stages of an OSIMAP study of how plastic may be propagating through the food web. His project focuses on two commercially important taxa, bivalves and crabs.
“We’re looking at the impact of plastic on the biology of these organisms, which in turn impacts their quality as food, how susceptible they are to being eaten, and how they can bioaccumulate plastics as one organism eats another. They can quickly increase their concentration of plastics with every bite,” McMahon says.
He is also considering the intersecting relationships between the physical plastics in the organisms and the physiologic and metabolic impacts they might have in terms of nutritional value, size, and the possibility of transferring pollutants and pathogens.
FILTERING PLASTICS FROM WASTEWATER
OSIMAP co-principal investigator Vinka Oyanedel-Craver, professor of environmental engineering, is focusing on microplastics in wastewater treatment facility outflow. Her team conducted a critical literature review of extraction and identification reports from wastewater purification sites and discovered extensive differences in the methodology use, which made it difficult to fully assess the magnitude of microplastics contamination. There is a trend toward using common methodologies, which will eventually lead to comparable and more accurate information. Depending on treatment methodology, some reports showed an overall removal rate of 95–98 percent.
“Our wastewater treatment systems are not specifically designed to capture microplastics, which are very small and float, and are released in effluent. So even though 95 percent is a high removal rate, if you count in terms of number of particles, 5 percent is still a lot of particles being released,” she explains. “We need new technologies that are feasible to implement, and we are studying electrocoagulation systems used in Brazil as a refinement treatment. In these systems, direct current is applied to metal electrodes that dissolve and change the charge of suspended particles. Bubbles form and particles can be removed when they settle at the bottom or float to the top.”
Oyanedel-Craver’s team is also looking into the contribution of uncontrolled storm water runoff, which some studies show could be the culprit for 70–80 percent of microplastic discharge into coastal systems.
WE NEED BETTER DATA
Recognizing the ubiquity of plastic in our lives, Christopher M. Reddy ’97, senior scientist in the Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, studies how plastic breaks down in the environment. His goal: Create a better plastic with a shorter life span.
“I find it fascinating to see when nature wins and when nature gets stymied when encountering a pollutant. How a chemical is assembled often dictates how it might be broken down by nature, or not,” Reddy says. “Part of my job is to figure out the attribute in that chemical that will last forever when you release it into the environment. And then inform manufacturers and policymakers about how they might change the formulation, or use a different type of plastic, to make the best product in the future.”
In checking his own lab results on how long plastics last in the environment against existing data, Reddy found the numbers were all over the place. Depending on which report you read, the lifetime of a plastic grocery bag is anywhere from 20 to 500 years. Reddy and co-author Colin P. Ward researched the disparity and published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.
“One key assumption behind the issue and public outcry is that plastics last indefinitely in the environment, resulting in chronic exposure that harms animals and humans. But the data supporting this assumption are scant. There is wide variation among published data and a surprising dearth of primary literature supporting it. We need better data—how long plastic sticks around, what makes it break down, and what it becomes—to make more informed decisions,” Reddy says.
Though interrupted by the COVID-19 lab shutdown, Reddy and his team are starting work again and he is hopeful for the future. “I do think you can make a noticeable and measurable impact on this recognized environmental stressor. It is probably the easiest stressor that can be fixed in a reasonable timeframe.”
Over in Jamestown, Rhode Island, Victor Bell ’73, M.M.A. ’77, helps multinational companies develop more eco-friendly packaging and navigate complex sustainability regulations as the U.S. managing director of Lorax EPI.
“We help Fortune 500 companies understand what packaging is recyclable, how best to recycle it, how they can make environmental claims legally, how they can reduce their carbon footprint and increase their recyclability, and how they can incorporate recycled content in their products and packaging,” Bell explains. Right now his company is working with Colgate-Palmolive on a recyclable toothpaste tube for their Tom’s of Maine brand, among others.
Bell is also working with countries around the world and with several U.S. states on extended producer responsibility, a policy approach that makes manufacturers more responsible—financially and/or physically—for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products.
“In every European country and many others around the world, producers have to pay for every gram of packaging they put on the market. The fee is based on how easy it is to recycle your materials—a clear PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle will have a lower fee than a colored one. This creates stable funding for collection and recycling. Many also have disruptor fees—we call it ecomodulation. If you design something stupidly, like putting a ceramic lid on a glass bottle, you pay, because that contaminates the recyclables. But if you do something smart with recycled content, you get discounts—a great economic incentive to do things correctly. It increases recycling rates and the value of the recycled material.”
The United States, however, is one of the few places that still has single-stream recycling, which leads to more contamination and less valuable recycled content. “We have one of the most broken systems in the developed world,” Bell says.
“The circular economy stresses designing goods so that waste is designed out. That means re-using materials at the end of their first useful life in an environmentally friendly way and designing packaging and goods so that they can be reused or recycled, to ‘keep the molecule in play.’ This is very different from our current linear economy, which, for the most part, is: Make, use, dispose.”Susan Bush, M.S. ’93 Principal of consulting firm Circular Matters
MAKE WASTE A COMMODITY
Susan Bush, M.S. ’93, agrees, pointing to statistics that show the total plastic bottle recycling collection rate in the United States was just 28.9 percent in 2018. “We can do certainly do better.”
Bush is a principal of Circular Matters in Narragansett, Rhode Island, a consulting firm that works to bring about the circular economy, a way of conducting business that is restorative and regenerative in nature, which has been popularized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
“The circular economy stresses designing goods so that waste is designed out. That means re-using materials at the end of their first useful life in an environmentally friendly way and designing packaging and goods so that they can be reused or recycled, to ‘keep the molecule in play.’ This is very different from our current linear economy, which, for the most part, is: Make, use, dispose.”
At Circular Matters, Bush works with companies, communities, trade organizations, and manufacturers to ensure packaging is as recyclable as possible while strengthening programs and policies to achieve high recycling rates and support the value of the material.
“We’re working to develop strong end markets for recovered materials, including plastics. If we can encourage consumers to recycle and purchase products with recycled content, the market will expand, the material will have value and hopefully be treated as a commodity, not waste. A big part of this is ensuring consumers understand what and how to recycle, so that processing is cost-effective.”
Currently there are strong markets for PET (soda and water bottles) and HDPE (shampoo and milk bottles) plastics, which Bush says comprise 98 percent of plastic bottles produced. PET is recycled into thermoform containers, fiber for carpet and clothing, and fiber-fill products like furniture. HDPE is recycled into plastic bottles, engineered lumber such as composite decking, lawn chairs, and garden edging. Rigid polypropylene plastics such as margarine tubs and to-go containers also have relatively strong domestic markets and are recycled into automotive products, buckets, railroad ties, and other extruded products.
POISED TO TURN THE TIDE
There is much about the marine plastic pollution problem and its impact that is not yet fully understood, but URI researchers are poised to change that.
“If we don’t get a handle on the problem, I worry about my grandchildren. I wonder what sort of world they’ll be inheriting,” Nixon says. “They’ll be asking, ‘What was my grandfather doing when they allowed this stuff to go on?’”
“URI is a medium-sized university in the smallest state in the country. We are not naïve in thinking we can tackle this alone. We need to be part of a national and international effort and we need strong partners, but we need to be in the mix,” says Snyder. “Being a strong sea-based institution with a strong ocean program, the ocean is where we can have focused impact.” •