Home Environmental education PSU-led team to study microplastics through Co

PSU-led team to study microplastics through Co


Microplastics can be found everywhere – from the air to the ocean – but there is still much to learn about the sources and how they move through the landscape. With the help of a one-year planning grant from the National Science Foundation, a Portland-led research team will take a closer look at the cycle of microplastics in the Columbia River Basin, one of largest river basins in the United States, with the goal of obtaining a larger research grant in the future.

The Columbia River Basin covers 258,000 square miles and includes parts of seven states and one Canadian province. In its 1,200 mile oceanward course, the river crosses four mountain ranges and drains more water to the Pacific Ocean than any other river in North or South America.

Environmental science and management professor Elise Granek said sources of plastics in these waters can range from agriculture to septic systems to dryer vents.

“Some sources emit microplastics that are in the air,” she said. “Some of them settle on land, some get washed away in stormwater by precipitation or washed away in the river, and some get re-aerosolized. We want to better understand the sources of microplastics and how they differ between inland rural and urban areas before they reach coastal areas.”

The project will involve sampling various sources of microplastics in rural and urban interior areas and conducting a series of workshops with scientists, sanitation officials, industry representatives, educators, tribes, fishers and non-governmental organizations.

Geography professor Heejun Chang said engaging with a diverse group of stakeholders early on to co-identify the problem and co-generate knowledge is key to tackling microplastic pollution.

“If we don’t change behaviors and change policy, we won’t be able to solve this problem,” he said.

The group will also develop a course, Plastics in the Environment, for K-12 educators who can then take lesson plans back to their classrooms. The course will provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the global problem of plastic pollution covering the life cycles and production of plastic, the global environmental plastic cycle, known environmental sources and uncertainties, physical and biological consequences of plastic in the environment, as well as sample processing and analysis in their schools.

The research team includes Chang; Graneck; Janice Brahney, associate professor of watershed science at Utah State University; Jodryn Wolfand, assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Portland; Sarah Carvill, senior environmental science teacher at PSU; and Nancee Hunter, director of the Center for Geography Education in Oregon at PSU.

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