Two Ithaca-based scientists are paddling from Cayuga Lake to Albany, testing water for plastics pollution from microbeads.
Christian Shaw and Gordon Middleton, who attended Cornell, have formed Plastic Tides, a not-for-profit aimed at raising awareness of water pollution. We caught up with them on the Clyde River, just after they’d gone under the Thruway bridge at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge.
“The beads act as a sponge for chemicals,’ says Middleton, ‘thus concentrating them in a little carrier, a bead. Some fish eats the bead, you catch the fish and next thing you know, you’re eating a toxic chemical.”
The beads can come from plastic bottles–tossed as trash–which break up and degrade when buffeted by water. And, of more concern, microfiber beads are part of some consumer products, including facial scrubs, shampoos and soaps, toothpaste, eyeliners, lip gloss, even deodorant. These products are designed to be washed down a drain, and many wastewater treatment plants cannot ‘catch’ the tiny beads (about the size of a printed period), so they end up in the water systems where they float, and may be ingested by waterfowl or fish, putting them into the food chain.
The Plastic Tides team collected water samples and footage of plastic pollution in the Atlantic this past summer, in a ten-day trip around Bermuda. Now, they’re working closer to home. “The science is there for the Great Lakes,” says Shaw (sampling has confirmed microbeads in Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie). “But going thru the heart of Upstate New York and showing people this is your back yard…are you going to let these companies keep polluting your back yard like this?”
The water samples the team is collecting will be analyzed at a lab at SUNY Fredonia. It’s expected there will be a legislative push in New York in 2015, to ban companies from using microbeads (suggested alternatives include apricot shells and cocoa beans, which degrade).
The team hopes to reach Albany by the middle of next week (that’s also when the canal locks close for the season) and in addition to water sampling, they’re also raising awareness of microbeads through social media campaigns (solar panels on their paddleboards help in recharging phones and cameras).