Provided; Elizabeth Nelson
Provided; Elizabeth Nelson

Troubled Waters: Microplastic Pollution

by Laura DeMassa '21

Ithaca’s Fall Creek rushes around Lisa Watkins in her waders, the waterproof garment that joins pants and boots. She submerges a net to filter the brisk water and capture microplastics—tiny bits of plastic that lace our rivers, rain, drinking water, and even salt.

During the 10 minutes it takes to collect her sample, Watkins gazes at her surroundings: the flat slabs of shale formed millennia ago, exposed to the forces of ice, water, and tectonic plates—a scene familiar to Cornellians and Ithacans alike.

Particles of plastic bob on the surface of the water and skirt the creek’s rocky edges. Watkins can’t see them from where she stands, but she knows they’re there.

“What happens when we are not able to control all of our plastic waste and some of it is floating down rivers, blowing across parking lots or grassy areas?” Watkins asks. “What happens to that waste when it’s just a piece of plastic versus nature?”

Watkins studies the dispersion of plastic in freshwater: how it decomposes, travels, and ends up in the stomachs of organisms, from zooplankton to fish to humans.

“Plastic pollution is a problem we all have a stake in,” Watkins says. “Every morning, before each of us goes to work, we have probably touched and used plastic several times.”

The massive amounts of plastic in the products we use daily do not fully degrade. Instead, whittled-down remnants of take-out bags, fleece jackets, yoga pants, and the now-banned microbeads once found in face washes are worn away over time into microscopic shreds, making their way into our creeks and rivers. Studies suggest that a fish’s consumption of plastic might result in behavioral changes, prompting the question of what effects ingested plastic might have on humans.

Finding Microplastics in Ithaca’s Creeks

Watkins wants to learn how much microplastic is present in aquatic systems—our streams, lakes, and reservoirs—and where it tends to gather and become most concentrated. Her studies begin with collecting water samples from Ithaca’s creeks. She once stayed awake for 24 hours straight, ricocheting between two of Cayuga Lake’s tributaries, Fall Creek and Six Mile Creek, to collect samples every two hours. In another study, Watkins and her team returned to these two creeks and sampled their dams to understand where microplastics congregated and in what quantities.

After collecting her field samples, Watkins heads back to Cornell’s Soil and Water Lab where she adds a solution that dissolves the murky organic matter in her sample jars. “I watch my sample jars bubble like witch’s brew as the hydrogen peroxide eats off all of the organics,” Watkins says.

Watkins then begins the meticulous task of counting each and every piece of microplastic. Peering through her microscope, she listens to Memphis singer Valerie June, whose blend of country twang, blues, and folk fills the lab.

Microplastics are defined as a piece of plastic that measures five millimeters in diameter or less. Watkins endeavors to detect and count shreds as small as a few hundred microns long and only a few microns wide. Right now, there is a need to understand precisely where plastic particles are found in freshwater environments, and in what quantities—an information gap that, once filled, can guide policy.

Acting As a Bridge to Science

Watkins’ research takes her many places, but perhaps the most meaningful to her are the communities with whom she partners. There, she connects with a variety of individuals, from politicians to middle-schoolers.

“We’re often speaking a different language,” Watkins says. “Young adults and students find themselves totally different and separate from scientists and the scientific process. It’s really stuck with me—who do we include and who are we excluding from the force of making change?”

Watkins is currently working with Litterati, an Android and iPhone app that allows the public to snap photos of trash in their community. The photos are geo-tagged, and the data collected are then used to inform policymakers about the amount and sorts of trash on their streets. For Watkins, this form of engagement—prompted by scientists eliciting public participation to gather data—can be a powerful tool to capture and galvanize the public’s attention and to encourage people to become involved in addressing plastic pollution in their own neighborhoods.

“The scientific method is not the only truth nor source of knowledge ... People know their streets, behaviors, and communities perhaps better than a scientist can measure it in an objective way.”

Such engagement is sometimes called “community science.” Watkins, however, makes a distinction. For her, community science, or community-driven research, happens when members of a local community initiate a collaboration with scientists to address the community’s concerns. As an example, Watkins mentions an upcoming project for which she will be working with a nonprofit environmental group in Atlanta, Georgia, to decipher and analyze the data they have collected.

By supporting community advocates in their mission, Watkins has come to appreciate the exchange between scientists and communities. “The scientific method is not the only truth nor source of knowledge, especially when you are measuring and sampling within people’s communities,” Watkins says. “People know their streets, behaviors, and communities perhaps better than a scientist can measure it in an objective way. There’s a real potential for knowledge transfer there.”

“Our Legacy, A Test”

“I feel it is my responsibility as someone who has access to the science and the data to find new ways of engaging with communities, sharing what I know and what the scientific community is learning about plastic pollution,” Watkins says.

Watkins has turned to poetry as both a fresh lens and space for conveying the impacts of plastic waste. In her poem “Our Legacy, a Test,” she captures the pervasiveness of human pollution against the backdrop of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet:

Carbons of the Cretaceous coughed from children’s lungs
First fast cars
Then airplanes
Then parachutes and gums

Although the scale of plastic pollution can be overwhelming, Watkins’ poetry hints at the opportunity to shape our human legacy for the better:

The river flows right through my net, in this stream and the next
I count and count
Immortal waste
Our legacy, a test

Watkins meets this test—the challenge of massive plastic pollution—undeterred. She came to the Soil and Water Lab in 2015 as a master's/PhD student because of its opportunities to study environmental engineering from a broad, interdisciplinary approach. She unexpectedly found herself among a team of almost all female lab mates and saw herself in them: strong and smart women who love the outdoors.

The lab also afforded her the flexibility to forge her own path and expand the Biological and Environmental Engineering Department to include studies on microplastics. “I have this real confidence now in sharing the science I have learned and molding our work in such a way that brings people in,” Watkins says.

As she nears completion of her PhD in Biological and Environmental Engineering, Watkins looks forward to “being a bridge to science” where she can connect communities to emerging research and data and likewise connect scientists to the insights and concerns of community members.

“We only get this one life and if we can continue being positive, feeling connected, and ideally making the lightest tread on the earth, all the better,” Watkins says.