***Editor’s note: Updated: March 1, 2016. The original story had incorrectly stated that PSUC received $250,000. Garneau and her collaborators received $71,000 from the Lake Champlain Sea Grant for the project.***
Of the $1.6 million grant, $71,000 of those funds are being used to address the issue of microplastics in Lake Champlain.
Microplastics, such as microbeads found in personal hygiene products, can drain into Lake Champlain, affecting marine life and people who rely on the lake for their water supply.
At PSUC and other SUNY schools, the problem of microplastics in bodies of water is being tackled head-on by professors and students alike — even the U.S. government.
Last year, Obama signed a federal law, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which banned microbeads in personal hygiene products.
Plattsburgh State Environmental Science Associate Professor Danielle Garneau said microplastics are broken down into more specific types, such as fragments, beads, films and fibers.
Beads are usually found in beauty products, films are found on cashier receipts, and fibers and fragments are found in anything from boat materials, such as fiberglass and vinyl lettering, to fleece clothing.
Garneau said the federal ban came as a surprise because it began as a state-by-state initiative, and she also said Democratic New York Sen. Gillibrand took a tour of many parts of New York State where the issue was prevalent this past summer.
Garneau said that, shortly after, the federal ban passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. However, there have been delays with phasing out these microbeads.
“These bans are delayed by one year for cosmetics that are over-the-counter drugs,” according to the bill.
“If you’re aware of (the issue of microbeads) and it’s easy to change, why wouldn’t you?” Garneau said.
She said she hopes the ban will make consumers more aware of the issue. She also said it’s not about only state or federal laws, but consumers making proper decisions, as well as CEOs of large corporations pledging to remove microplastics from their products.
Garneau said Colgate-Palmolive already made that pledge.
“Microplastics and microbeads are used in some household cleaning, oral care and other products to enhance aesthetics and aid in cleaning,” Colgate-Palmolive said in an online statement on its website. “Some groups have raised concerns regarding the potential contribution of microbeads to pollution of the world’s oceans. Recognizing that consumers have questions, as of year-end 2014 we are no longer using this ingredient.”
Garneau said this is a step in the right direction.
She said 34 wastewater treatment plants in New York State showed that 25 of them were emitting microplastics, mostly fibers.
These fibers come from many everyday instances, such as washing a fleece jacket, which Garneau said emits as many as 1,900 fibers.
“Small, unmarked pieces of plastic are virtually impossible to recycle,” according to the Burlington Free Press, which is a reason why they pose such a problem in Lake Champlain.
Garneau claims the goal of the research done in 2015 was to track the movement of the microplastics as they move up the food chain.
She said microplastics can pose a danger not only for fish populations such as rainbow smelt, but for people who eat these fish. She said these plastics can be “absorbed into the stomach lining and fat tissue (of the fish), which we consume.”
Garneau said the philosophy classes at PSUC will be looking at the ethics of microplastics. She said that it’s a good idea to integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, classes with arts and humanities and finding common issues to look at and research.
“It’s essential that philosophy and STEM connect and work together, especially because of our changing environment and its direct correlation with ethical and moral problems,” PSUC senior and English/adolescent education major Emma Kelly said.
Kelly said she has tried to cut back on items with microbeads in them and now shops for toiletries at the North Country Food Co-Op.
“They have great all-natural options,” Kelly said.
PSUC senior and criminal justice major Austin Hansen said having STEM connect with humanities “helps us to grow as a university.”
Both Hansen and Kelly said they would like to see more awareness on campus for the issue, whether it is in classes or tabling in the Angell College Center.
Garneau said this is part of a larger issue and that many people don’t have access to clean water in the United States and the rest of the world. However, Garneau said our society is moving in the right direction and becoming more aware.
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