TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Researchers from Michigan’s three universities that make up the University Research Corridor (URC) held a roundtable discussion today with community leaders and state and local officials to discuss ways to deal with microplastics, a contaminant of growing concern in the Great Lakes.

URC experts ‒ including Melissa Duhaime, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University School of Medicine Assistant Professor Rodrigo Fernandez-Valdivia, and Muhammad Rabnawaz, assistant professor in the School of Packaging at Michigan State University ‒ met at the Hotel Delamar in downtown Traverse City to share ideas with state and local officials and experts from organizations tied to the Great Lakes.

“Each year an estimated 11,000 tons of plastic pollution enters the Great Lakes, harming fish and wildlife and getting into our food and drinking water,” said Britany Affolter-Caine, URC executive director. “Researchers at URC universities are laser-focused on discovering more about the challenges posed by microplastics and developing ways to lessen them while protecting the environment, learning from practitioners in the field and sharing ideas with lawmakers, community leaders and the public.”

An alliance of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, the URC has seen its institutions over the past five years conduct $493.8 million in environmental health research and service and $1.64 billion in infrastructure-related research.

During today’s roundtable, participants discussed research being conducted at the URC universities that’s leading to better ways to deal with microplastics, small pieces of plastic 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller in size that can be invisible to the naked eye. Bigger pieces of plastic often break down into microplastics, and fibers from fleece or nylon clothing can become microplastics that come off when those fabrics are washed. Other pollution results when small plastic pellets called “nurdles” – used in making items such as shopping bags, food wrap and auto parts – make their way into the water when spilled during shipment or storage.

At the University of Michigan, Duhaime has been studying the interplay between microbes and plastic pollution in freshwater and oceans for over a decade, heading up research that could lead to ways to degrade plastic with the help of bacteria and fungi. She’s getting ready to launch her “Microbes in the Wild” summer course at the university’s Biological Station on Douglas Lake in Cheboygan County.

“Many of our Michigan communities depend on tourism, sport fishing and the promise of pristine water. Microplastics are consumed by fish and smaller organisms at the base of the Great Lakes food web and pollute the lakes and waterways enjoyed by so many people,” Duhaime said. “Right now, parts of the Great Lakes have among the highest concentrations of microplastics on the planet. Our research is aimed at determining how and how quickly plastics break down in the environment, with special focus on discovering microbes able to consume them.”

Keeping plastic waste out of water systems and landfills is a complicated problem being tackled by Rabnawaz at Michigan State’s School of Packaging. The National Science Foundation awarded Rabnawaz a 2021 CAREER award to research how to best simplify plastics recycling by developing affordable polymers that are easy to recycle.

“The United States currently recycles only 10 percent of its plastic waste, and 30 percent of plastic ends up in products that can’t be recycled at all. That increases the likelihood that microplastics will get into our air, ground and water,” Rabnawaz said. “We’re excited to find solutions that can increase recycling and sustainability, help our manufacturers and protect our environment.”

Fernandez-Valdivia of Wayne State studies the ways that environmental pollutants can cause cancer, endocrine disruption and other diseases.

“As with PFAS, there’s a lot we don’t know about how microplastics affect those who ingest them through drinking water or eating fish that see microplastics as food,” he said. “It’s imperative that we do the research needed to find out how much of a threat microplastics pose to public health.”

State Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, chaired Monday’s roundtable discussion, and Traverse Connect President & CEO Warren Call hosted the event. They said the collaboration with the three URC universities is showing how research done on campus has real-life applications for communities around the state, helping solve new challenges as they arise.

“Microplastics are a growing concern since we don’t yet fully understand their health implications but know they’re present in our food and drinking water,” Schmidt said. “Sharing information among experts from our research universities, communities and the private sector enables us to discuss real-world solutions and deal with microplastics in smarter, more efficient and effective ways.”

Call noted the importance of the Great Lakes to Northwest Michigan communities when it comes to tourism, fishing, manufacturing and recreation, as well as a source of clean drinking water.

“Our cities, towns and the state of Michigan will struggle to compete if businesses, residents and tourists have to worry about microplastics increasing in the Great Lakes,” he said. “We appreciate the vital work the URC universities are doing to find and share solutions, especially since many communities are trying to figure out what steps to take to deal with microplastics.”

Others involved in the discussion included Hans Van Sumeran, director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City; Mark Breederland, an Extension Educator with Sea Grant Michigan, a cooperative program of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Christine Chrisman, executive director of The Watershed Center–Grand Traverse Bay; and Jay Meldrum of Michigan Technological University, who works with Traverse City on Northern Michigan issues.

NMC Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Jason Slade also attended, as did Liz Kirkwood, executive director of FLOW (For Love of Water); Chase Bonhag, CEO and co-founder of FirstIgnite; Kelly Lively, Northern Michigan regional director for U.S. Sen. Gary Peters; MSU President Emeritus Lou Anna K. Simon; and Jennifer Read, director of the University of Michigan Water Center.

Monday’s roundtable discussion was the last of three stops in the URC’s Health Threats Tour that includes the release of a new URC report brief, Tackling Environmental Health Threats. The first stop on the tour took place April 19 at Wayne State University’s Integrative Biosciences Center and focused on dealing with the health implications of the flooding that has plagued Detroit and other communities. The second took place April 25 at the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center and focused on PFAS.