Managing microplastic pollution: WSU research team secures $929k in funding for science-based mitigation initiative

More than half of waste released in a given year contains plastic materials. About 10,000 metric tons of plastic enter the Great Lakes every year, and another 8 million goes into the ocean. While plastic never decomposes, it does break down into much smaller - but no less environmentally hazardous - components called microplastics.

As these pollutants enter water supplies and marine environments, they create more profound problems for ecological and human health. Reducing microplastic pollution is one of the top priorities of leading environmental organizations, including the Great Lakes Protection Fund, which recently awarded Wayne State University researchers with a three-year, $929,000 grant to develop technology that will not only help zero in on microplastic sources but will also accelerate a targeted outreach and mitigation campaign.

The project is led by Yongli Zhang, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Mark Cheng, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; Weisong Shi, professor of computer science; Carol Miller, professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Donna Kashian, associate professor of biological sciences.

"The issue of plastic pollution - and more specifically microplastic pollution - is beginning to get more attention," said Zhang. "However, this is still a relatively new issue for most people, and a great deal of outreach is still needed to make positive changes to public awareness and engagement."

Microplastics are often remnants from larger plastic items such as water bottles, one of which can break up into over 10,000 pieces. They also come from products that contain microbeads, such as soap or toothpaste, and from textile fibers in laundry wastewater. Microplastics present a significant health threat for several reasons. Because of their tiny size - smaller than five millimeters - they easily enter food systems, often without detection. They act as toxic sponges, absorbing large amounts of persistent organic pollutants, which can lead to serious illnesses, and interact with microbiota such as bacteria and fungi, which play key roles in our ecosystem.

plastic bottle
Microplastics are often remnants from larger plastic items such as water bottles, one of which can break up into over 10,000 pieces.

The pathway to promote positive social changes is an innovative Internet of Things (IoT) technology developed by Zhang's team that incorporates optical sensors, machine learning and edge computing to allow for more cost-efficient and timely monitoring and sourcing of microplastic pollution. The belief is that this knowledge will benefit public understanding of the problem and lead to behavioral changes.

"The advantages of our IoT sensors include high-throughput, low-cost and automatic measurement of chemical composition of microplastics," said Cheng.

"By integrating the IoT technology with machine learning tools, the sensors will provide abundant critical information for microplastic monitoring, including the quantity, size, chemical composition and age, as well as the correlation to the location and weather conditions," said Shi.

The research team will deploy its sensors at testing sites in Pontiac, a city situated about 25 miles from Wayne State's campus, and Williamston, located just outside of Lansing. They will monitor microplastic inputs from multiple sources including wasterwater discharge, urban runoff and agricultural zones.

"The team will leverage this data to promote mitigation initiatives such as microplastic-filtering laundry bags, street side garbage bins and green water infrastructures," said Miller.

"This project can be scaled up to engage with greater numbers of community members, civic leaders and students both at the university and K-12 levels," said Kashian. "This will further public awareness and pollutant reduction efforts."

In addition to the WSU research team, two community partners - Ingham Conservation District and ReRoot Pontiac - will collaborate on the project.

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