Many are aware of the long-term effects of plastic pollution in the environment. A number of iconic images are ingrained in recycling and waste-reduction movements to emphasize the fact: marine life caught in six-pack rings, grocery bags floating forlorn through the air, piles and piles of water bottles and disposable utensils filling our landfills. If plastic production continues to show no signs of slowing down, we will be facing a big problem in a tiny package: microplastics.
“They’ve been found, literally, from the highest mountain tops to the lowest points in the ocean. On Earth, they’ve been discovered everywhere,” says Julie Peller, Ph.D., professor of chemistry at Valparaiso University. “I think it’s getting on people’s radar more. I don’t know that they know what to make of it and figure ‘I’ve been drinking out of a water bottle my whole life, and I’ve been okay,’ and that’s enough to convince them everything’s fine.”
What are microplastics and nanoplastics?
Plastic does not break down at a chemical level like organic material. As Professor Peller puts it, if you bury a banana peel in the ground, it will eventually decompose into nothing (hungry wildlife notwithstanding.) Leave a plastic water bottle in the same conditions, however, and it will remain more or less the same for centuries, perhaps millennia.
Just because a piece of plastic does not break down at chemical level, however, does not mean it’s impervious to being broken or shattered. A plastic item can break again and again, the broken pieces getting smaller and smaller — though never decomposing — until they can only be measured in almost unimaginably tiny units.
“Someone in the science community decided that about five millimeters down to a micrometer is the range for microplastics,” Professor Peller says. For reference, an average human hair is around 50 micrometers thick.
Even micrometers may not be small enough to get the full scope of the picture. Nanoplastics, particles so minute that only the larger ones can be measured with lasers, may be bringing their own problems to the environment. These nanoplastics have been a major part of the work being done by Professor Peller, her collaborators, and her students and could bring their own issues to the table.
“As you get to smaller and smaller particles, their interaction with biological matter, including our own cells, becomes very different,” says Professor Peller.
How do these microplastics impact us?
Being confronted with the knowledge that microplastics and nanoplastics are everywhere, inescapable, and in one’s body at this very moment is an uncomfortable series of facts. What may be even more uncomfortable is that, when it comes to the impact these particles will have on human health as the sheer volume continues to increase, today’s science is just beginning to understand the effects.
“That’s something we’re working on, and something we won’t really have good answers to for a long time, because it’s complicated. There is so much of it in so many different forms,” Professor Peller says.
One of the major obstacles impeding progress in this area is the immense variation of plastic waste found in nature. A laboratory experiment must focus on just one or two types of plastic at any given point to create useful quantitative data. Another issue is keeping contaminants out of the lab. Any equipment containing plastic of its own must be disqualified from entering the testing area, meaning no plastic tubes, bottles, goggles, or polyester fabric in any form. Everything has to be glass, metal, and cotton.
Another related problem is the chemical additives often incorporated into plastic products depending on their intended function.
One study shows that there are over 10,000 chemical additives that are added to these plastic materials,” Professor Peller says. “It’s a lot, and in addition to the plastic itself, many of these other chemicals can leach out under certain conditions.
The good news is that more scientists and researchers are starting to turn their attention to the problem, just as the overall issue of microplastics has been gaining increased attention in the public consciousness.
“In 2018 or 2019, I spoke with a friend of my daughter who does research on the gut, and I asked if they’d studied any of these microplastics,” Professor Peller says. “At that time, his answer was no. A few years later, he brought a webinar to my attention that was about the medical science attention and interest this is now getting. I think this is becoming an important topic for a lot of researchers that study the human body.”
Until new findings come to light, however, we have no idea what kind of effect these tiny pollutants will have on our health or the health of future generations, if any. Professor Peller is not optimistic that this will turn out to be a nonissue.
“I hope one day I’m proven wrong, that they’re benign, not bothering anyone at all,” says Professor Peller. “But I tend to think that there are some negative health consequences to these materials based on the research of the past few years.”
Microplastics and Water
Identifying and quantifying the amount of microplastics and nanoplastics in a given sample of water, and identifying the behaviors of microplastics in water, has been one of the major projects of Professor Peller and her collaborators.
The nanoplastics produced for testing are created through a unique, patent-pending process that introduces a co-solvent to break up larger plastic pieces, then removes the co-solvent to leave the pure plastic. A dye synthesized by Christina Davis, Ph.D., visiting professor of chemistry, gives a fluorescent signal in the presence of nanoplastics, which may make identification far simpler.
One major roadblock in the process, however, is finding water that is completely free of nanoplastics in the first place. Highly filtered and deionized water used in chemistry labs has long been thought to be as pure as possible, but Professor Peller and her collaborators have found that may not quite be the case.
“What we’re finding is that, we take a drop of that water on our slide, and we visibly see a film when it dries,” she says. “This is supposed to be pure water, there shouldn’t be a film on it.”
“It was very eye-opening, finding out that what we had spent all this time assuming was pure lab water wasn’t zero-plastic water. We need to figure that in and rerun some of our previous experiments.”
Perhaps most alarmingly, the behavior of nanoplastics in water is wildly different from that of their larger counterparts. They disperse evenly, and without co-solvents or special dyes to render them visible, remain virtually undetectable to an observer.
“It was very eye-opening, finding out that what we had spent all this time assuming was pure lab water wasn’t zero-plastic water.”
Where is all this microplastic coming from?
Chances are that a quick look around whatever room a person happens to be in will reveal a wide array of plastic items used for virtually every facet of our modern lives. Kitchenware, wall fixtures, household decor, furniture, and countless other items all contain plastic, and all release tiny pieces throughout their lifespan.
“All of these release particles, including our plastic drinking cups and containers,” Professor Peller says. “We’re actually exposed to these a lot more than we ever thought.”
One major source of microplastics that often goes unnoticed is the very clothing we wear. Polyester is a manufactured synthetic fiber generally derived from petroleum — in other words, it’s a form of plastic. And every time a piece of clothing with polyester gets run through the wash, tiny fibers find their way back into the water supply.
The number of fibers from a load of laundry may seem negligible, and water processing plants are effective at removing between 80-98% of them, but when it’s all of the laundry, dishwater, bathing water, and more from an entire community, the numbers add up at an alarming rate. According to Professor Peller’s research, Lake Michigan is taking in roughly four billion microfibers per day from the Salt Creek tributary alone.
Perhaps even more concerning is the amount of plastic that parents will often surround their babies with.
“When you use blankets, you use polyester that’s really soft, but also releases lots and lots of fibers,” Professor Peller says. “Between that, the plastic clothing, the plastic baby bottles, the crazy number of plastic toys, we’ve subjected them to a lot more of these materials than someone from my generation ever had, especially during those growing and formative years.”
Manufacturers dealing in plastics can also produce immense amounts of microplastic waste. Professor Peller had previously been contacted by a concerned citizen over the production practices of PolyJohn Enterprises Corporation in Whiting, Indiana. Professor Peller and her collaborators, including Jon-Paul McCool, Ph.D., associate professor of geography, have since taken a number of samples to see how much microplastic is making its way deep into sediment.
“They were also releasing really small microplastics that I understand are used as an adhesive,” Professor Peller says. “We found that those were making their way further down into the sediment; overall the sediment is collecting huge amounts of these microplastics in the natural marsh.”
The water from the marshes of Whiting ultimately makes its way into Lake Michigan, and while the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has issued fines for the contamination, the ultimate issue persists, both in Whiting and many other places where plastic manufacturing takes place.
How are Valparaiso University students making a difference?
Professor Peller’s research has opened up rich opportunities for young researchers to gain valuable experience in the lab while making a real difference in the world. Scott Kaiser ’24, a chemistry major currently interning at Quest Diagnostics, was brought onto the project as a freshman. Despite having zero knowledge of the microplastics issue beforehand, his experiences with Professor Peller have had a profound impact on his outlook.
“It’s made me more aware of all the plastic pollution issues within the world,” Scott says. “It makes me want to find new ways to recycle plastic or reduce plastic. It’s also made me a little scared for the future knowing how easy it is to ingest plastic.”
Scott worked with Professor Peller on an ongoing project that artificially ages microplastic samples using radiation to get a better idea of how they will change over time and what impact they may come to have on the environment. He also played a role in figuring out ways to create nanoplastics for study. On top of getting to have an active hand in bettering our understanding of humanity’s impact on the environment, Scott says his involvement with the project has been a great help on a personal and career level.
“This was the chance to be able to have my name on papers and get some real experience,” Scott says.
Abbie Valicevic ’24, a biology and chemistry double-major, also had no knowledge of microplastics before coming to Valparaiso University, but quickly learned enough to know that she wanted to make a difference.
“Once you learn what the word means, it’s really scary. You want to do something about it,” Abbie says.
Abbie’s project involved quantifying the number of nanoplastics that come off of plastic cups in a given period.
“I really enjoy working with Professor Peller,” Abbie says. “She encourages us to do independent work in the lab, she puts a lot of trust in us to do what needs to be done that day. It’s great that she gives us that opportunity in the lab space, because this research is so important for undergraduates.”
After graduation, Abbie hopes to take a gap year, followed by pursuing a career in health care, which gives her a unique perspective on the issues she’s working on.
“You don’t go to the doctor and get asked if you’re drinking water out of a plastic bottle, because there’s not a lot of research that’s been done on this issue,” Abbie says. “I’m interested in taking research beyond the chem lab and into the healthcare field. How is this interacting with the body? How is it getting into different places in the body? What’s being caused by these plastics?”
What can we do?
“We have to care for society, not just our lives, but make sure what we’re doing isn’t harmful to young people or future generations,” says Professor Peller.
Solving or even making significant progress on the problem of plastic waste has proved to be a monumental task. Despite the ecologic and potential health issues, production of plastic materials, including single-use varieties, continues to rise.
The projection is that we’re going to have so much more of this manufactured in the next 20 years, and, from an environmental and public health perspective, we don’t want that to happen,” says Professor Peller.
“The projection is that we’re going to have so much more of this manufactured in the next 20 years, and, from an environmental and public health perspective, we don’t want that to happen,” says Professor Peller.
Unfortunately, large, powerful, and extremely wealthy industries are highly incentivized to keep the plastic flowing. According to Professor Peller, the increasing replacement of gasoline-powered devices with cleaner electrical models is putting pressure on the fossil fuel industry to recoup the lost profits somehow. As plastic is ultimately a petroleum-based product, increasing sales of plastics is proving to be the most appealing option.
Secondly, while recycling plastic materials wherever possible seems to be a worthwhile endeavor, the technology and infrastructure needed to make it a permanent solution to the plastic waste problem simply do not currently exist. We simply do not have solutions for all of this waste.
The third and possibly greatest detriment to the cause is that first-world countries are unlikely to experience, or even directly see, the worst consequences of plastic waste. Underprivileged communities take the brunt of the suffering.
“Watch any documentary on plastic garbage in third-world countries and the scope of the issues becomes far clearer,” says Professor Peller. “It’s horrifying. It’s not right. And we should address that.”
For the general population, education and awareness are two key factors in lessening the microplastics problem. Someone wanting to make a difference should be aware of what they’re buying and attempt to avoid single-use plastic items whenever possible. In a world where every item seems to be wrapped, bottled or boxed in plastic, it may seem like an impossible task, but even reducing one’s use of single-use plastic can help.
“Single use plastic is horrible for the environment,” Scott says. “Not using plastic is nearly impossible, but to use metal materials or reusable materials is possibly the best thing to do.”
“I’ve stopped using Ziplock bags as much as I can,” Abbie says. “I use silicone bags when I bring my lunch to work. I make my own coffee and take it to work in a glass cup. It’s hard to think that you making a change can be the thing that makes the long-term change, but any small reduction in plastic is something.”
Professor Peller makes it very clear, however, that she is not working alone. Student and faculty collaborators from Valparaiso University, the University of Notre Dame, California State University, and a few national labs are working together as an international community of environmental scientists and engineers to pin down the problem and come up with solutions.
Microplastic research is just one of the ways that Valparaiso University is making the world a greener place. Several student, faculty, and staff groups have been hard at work to reduce unnecessary waste on campus. During the 2023 “Race to Zero Waste” recycling movement, Valpo ranked 19 out of 105 national institutions in the amount of material recycled and number one in the state of Indiana.
While microplastics and nanoplastics represent an enormous problem, the efforts of institutions like Valparaiso University are taking important steps toward grappling with the issue and looking for a cleaner future.