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Got Plastic? Scientists look for Microplastics on White Iron Lake

Photo: Woman wearing life jacket on boat sampling water

UMD researcher, Elizabeth Austin-Minor, collects all the particles from a water sample taken from White Iron Lake in 2019. The samples will be analyzed by the research team in the laboratory. Photo credit: Casey Schoenebeck, MNDNR.

By Marte Kitson, University of Minnesota Sea Grant Program
November 2019

UMD researcher, Kathryn Schreiner, is the lead researcher on a project funded by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. She is looking at the amount and type of microplastics found in fish stomachs in several lakes in Minnesota, including White Iron Lake.

“We found microplastics in western Lake Superior,” Schreiner said. “So I am curious to learn if our inland lakes also contain microplastics.”

The Quantifying Microplastics in Minnesota’s Inland Lakes project began in the summer of 2019 and will conclude in 2021. Last summer, researchers from UMD and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) collected fish, water, and sediment samples from four of the lakes in the Sentinel Lakes Program.

The project also supports public education and community engagement, which are being coordinated by the University of Minnesota Sea Grant.

The research team is asking the fishing community for additional fish stomachs between April 1, 2020 and April 30, 2021. Details on how to obtain a sample kit, process the fish stomachs, and where to send samples will be posted on the White Iron Chain of Lakes Association (WICOLA) website in March 2020.

A member of the microplastics research team will present on this project at WICOLA’s April meeting.

Microplastics — What are They and What can you do About Them?

Microplastics are plastic particles that are smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter or about 1/20th of an inch.¹ In western Lake Superior, the most abundant kinds of microplastic are synthetic microfibers.² Throughout the river systems in the Great Lakes basin, microfibers comprise about 70% of the collected microplastics. They come from common items such as synthetic clothes and fabrics, diapers, wipes, tampons, and cigarette butts.³

When plastics larger than about 5 millimeters in diameter are exposed to ultraviolet light, wind, and abrasion, they break down and form microplastics, but they do not biodegrade. Plastic bags, bottles, and plastic wrap contain polyethylene. Food containers, bottle caps, candy- and chip-wrappers, and food containers contain polypropylene. Polyethylene and polypropylene are the second and third most abundant types of plastic found in the western arm of Lake Superior.

Microbeads, another type of microplastic, start out small (smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter) and were once found in products such as toothpaste, facial scrubs, sunscreen, and other personal-care items. However, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 banned the sale of cosmetics that contain microbeads beginning in 2018.

Photo: Tiny fragments of colored plastic seen through a microscope

Microfibers (left), and plastic fragments (right) found in western Lake Superior. Photo credit: Erik Hendrickson, UMD.

Microplastics affect people and other living beings. They are found in freshwater drinking supplies and products made with these supplies, most notably, beer, here in the Great Lakes region.⁴ Aquatic life and birds can mistake microplastics for food. If eaten, the plastic can create intestinal blockages that create a false sense of fullness or satiation and may result in starvation and death. Plastic also absorbs toxins, like polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), mercury, and pesticides.

There are many efforts underway to limit the use of plastic. Below are five steps you can take to limit the amount of microplastics in the environment.*

  1. Reduce - Limit your own plastic waste.
  2. Reuse - Bring your own shopping bags, refill from bulk bins using your own jars and containers.
  3. Refuse - Say, “No thank you,” when offered a plastic straw and request no straws when ordering beverages.
  4. Remove - Pick up trash in your neighborhood.
  5. Recycle - Recycle plastics you no longer need.
  6. Reclaim - Add a filter to the waste water line of your washing machine to collect fibers.

*These steps were adopted from the Earth Day Network.

¹NOAA. What are Microplastics? National Ocean Service website, https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html Accessed 10/21/2019.

²Hendrickson, E.; E. Minor, and K. Schreiner. 2018. Microplastic Abundance and Composition in Western Lake Superior as Determined via Microscopy, Pyr-GC/MS, and FTIR. Environmental Science & Technology 2018 52 (4), 1787-1796. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b05829

³USGS. Microplastics in Our Nation’s Waterways. https://owi.usgs.gov/vizlab/microplastics/. Accessed 10/21/2019.

⁴Kremer, R. 2018. Minnesota Researchers Find Microplastics In Beer Made With Great Lakes Water. Wisconsin Public Radio. Online access: https://www.wpr.org/minnesota-researchers-find-microplastics-beer-made-great-lakes-water Published 5/10/2018.

Water Quality:

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Marte Kitson
Environmental Literacy Extension Educator

This page last modified on November 11, 2019     © 1996 – 2020 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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