Wayne State gets $1M grant to fight Great Lakes growing microplastic problem

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Could the solution to microplastic pollution come from Wayne State University?

Principal researcher Yongli Zhang, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, certainly hopes so. With the help of a recently awarded grant totaling $929,000 from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, Zhang will lead a team of engineers and biologists in mitigating the micro-contaminants from entering the water. 

"The issue of plastic pollution, and more specifically microplastic pollution, is beginning to get more attention," said Zhang in a press release. "However, this is still a relatively new issue for more people, and a great deal of research and outreach is still needed to make positive changes to public awareness and engagement."

A buzzword as of recent, microplastics have been in the news in the Great Lakes region after a series of studies found the Midwestern bodies of water have some of the worst cases of contamination in the country. 

Microplastics are the result of plastic discarded in the environment, and breaking up into smaller pieces. Microplastic is formed by every day plastic items that break down over time after being discarded. But they also come from human cosmetics and are washed of clothes. 

The grant will tackle this problem with a "multi-faceted approach" said Donna Kashian, an associate professor at the university. 

The biological sciences professor said the money will help develop technology to address issues of microplastic sources. Zhang said her team will be working on an optical sensor prototype that can both detect the amount of plastic in the water, as well as the type of plastic.

"We'll use the sensor to gather scientific information to know where are hotspots of microplastic pollution," Zhang said. "Once we have this information, we can design strategies on how to reduce this pollution."

That's not to say there aren't tools already being used to catch microplastics from entering the water - namely laundry bags that are used to catch microfibers, a type of microplastic, from clothes.  

While the majority of the grant funding will be used for the research, close to $200,000 will be used in educational campaigns, which will strive to teach the general public as well as people working at water and waste water treatment facilities - common sources for microplastic pollution. 

"Part of it is developing outreach material for K-12 grades, and the other component is bringing in facilities and stakeholders and talking about the technology developments available," said Kashian. 

The research team anticipates having a working sensor prototype by the start of the third year of the project , in 2021. Once developed, the sensor will be put to the test at two sites: the Red Cedar Watershed in Williamston, and along stormwater runoff sites in Pontiac. Zhang's team has partnered with community groups in both cities, in hopes of understanding microplastic's presence in both rural areas, like Williamston, as well more urban settings like Pontiac.

The data collected will help the team better advocate for clean solutions.

"A lot of the time, we have been very retroactive (with potential pollutants)," Kashian said.

Studies looking at the ubiquity of the problem are finding the Great Lakes host a greater density of microfibers than the Pacific Ocean. 

In another study reported last May, researchers found the Apostle Islands, an archipelago along the northern Wisconsin shoreline reportedly had the highest concentration of microplastics of 35 National Parks studied.