Microplastics may increase the risk of PFAS entering the Lake Michigan food web

This post originally appeared on the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant web site.

by Irene Miles, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant

Maggie Oudsema, a research assistant at the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI), Grand Valley State University and John Scott, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, lower microplastic samples into Muskegon Lake. (Photo courtesy John Scott)
Maggie Oudsema, a research assistant at the Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI), Grand Valley State University and John Scott, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, lower microplastic samples into Muskegon Lake. (Photo courtesy John Scott)

Ever-present in our world, it’s not surprising that plastics have been found in waterways virtually everywhere, mostly showing up as microplastics. Another group of contaminants, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are, likewise, being detected in the environment all over the world.

All of these contaminants pose concerns on their own, but now research funded by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant has found that PFAS can stick to microplastic particles in the water, increasing the likelihood that they will end up in the food web.

PFAS are human-made chemicals that are used in many common products such as non-stick cookware, pizza boxes and stain repellent fabric. Qualities that have made them useful—for example, they are very stable and are resistant to water and oil—can contribute to concerns about PFAS. They don’t easily break down in lakes, rivers, wildlife and people. PFAS can have health effects, such as increasing the risk of cancer, decreasing fertility, and impacting growth and learning in infants and children.

Plastics can break down in the environment to microscopic size or they can enter lakes and rivers as microplastics already—for example, as tiny fibers that wash off our clothing. Once in the environment and our waters, microplastics stick around, and like PFAS they do not easily biodegrade.

John Scott, an analytical chemist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, led a team of researchers to understand the extent to which PFAS and other contaminants attach to microplastics in waterways.

His team used three common types of plastic, testing them in the waters of Muskegon Lake, which sits adjacent to Lake Michigan along the Michigan coast. They also did similar testing in a controlled environment using laboratory water.

Microplastic samples were submerged in the nearshore waters of the channel connecting the two lakes and in the middle of Muskegon Lake, for one month and three months in both locations, and in the laboratory for one month.

Rachel Orzechowski, a research assistant at AWRI, Grand Valley State University, sets up microplastics samples to submerge for 1-3 months in Muskegon Lake. (Photo courtesy John Scott)
Rachel Orzechowski, a research assistant at AWRI, Grand Valley State University, sets up microplastics samples to submerge for 1-3 months in Muskegon Lake. (Photo courtesy John Scott)

The researchers found that regardless of location, length of time or type of plastic tested, PFAS in Muskegon Lake adhered to microplastic particles—ranging from .052 nanogram to .87 nanogram of PFAS for each gram of plastic. Interestingly, the amount of PFAS sticking to the microplastic in laboratory water was notably less.

“The difference may be due to associated organic matter or the presence of metals or biofilm, which is a collection of bacteria that grows on microplastic particles in the lake, making the surface easier to stick to,” said Scott. “This would also explain the wide variability that we found in PFAS concentrations on microplastic samples that were identical in substance and treatment. We did not find this degree of variability in the controlled experiments.”

Biofilm is a collection of microorganisms that grow on a variety of surfaces. (Graphic Joel Davenport/Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant)
Biofilm is a collection of microorganisms that grow on a variety of surfaces. (Graphic Joel Davenport/Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant)

Scott points out that the concentration of PFAS they found attached to microplastics in the study is quite low—for perspective, a nanogram is a billionth of a gram—but there is more to the story. “We submerged our samples for limited time, but some studies have estimated that half of microplastics in the environment have been there for 10 to 15 years. And many of these plastic particles in the water are smaller than we used in this study, so with similar mass they have more surface area, which could result in more adsorption.”

Another consideration is that PFAS are only one group of chemicals that can attach to microplastics. Scott said, “We don’t know the implications of what could be a cocktail of contaminants—like PCBs or PAHs—adhering to these particles and ingested by fish or other organisms.”

At the same time, many plastics may already contain additives such as heavy metals, flame retardants and plasticizers that can further exacerbate this issue. “These microplastics-associated pollutants can act synergistically when an organism is exposed to them,” said Scott.

Recent IISG-funded research at Loyola University has shown that fish in three Lake Michigan tributaries are ingesting microplastics. Biologists John Kelly and Tim Hoellein found that 85% of the fish tested contain, on average, 13 pieces of microplastic in their digestive tract.

Does this translate to a level of concern for fish regarding PFAS and other chemicals that may be in these waters and may be attached to microplastics?

“We just don’t know,” said Scott. “We don’t know if PFAS ingested on microplastics stay with the fish, we don’t know at what rate fish ingest microplastics and we don’t know what concentrations in fish are a cause for concern. This project highlights that, in addition to focusing on relevant microplastic concentrations, further studies need to consider environmentally exposed microplastics.”

Safer sanitation in food and beverage manufacturing and processing

With funding from U.S. EPA, ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) is working with the food and beverage manufacturing and processing sector to help them reduce their energy consumption, water use, hazardous materials use, and operating costs. Cleaning and sanitation is a critical process throughout the industry and is one that is ripe for improvement.

By law, all food and beverage manufacturers and processors must have reliable processes in place to keep their products safe for human consumption. They are usually outlined in Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs). Cleaning and sanitation is critical in food safety to protect the processing environment from being inhabited by harmful microorganisms.

Cleaning and sanitation removes the food that bacteria need to grow and destroys any bacteria that may be present. The right prescription depends on the composition of food soils and the surface characteristics. The typical order for cleaning/sanitizing activities is:

  1. Dry clean
  2. Rinse
  3. Clean
  4. Rinse
  5. Sanitize

Common cleaning and sanitizing compounds include acids, alkali, phosphates and chlorine. In-plant storage, handling, and application of cleaning and sanitation compounds can be hazardous to workers. These products can also generate large volumes of wastewater and treatment costs to ensure that all post-sanitizing chemical residues are washed away.

Ozone generator
Ozone generator

With these challenges in mind, ISTC is working with the food and beverage industry to help clients identify and adopt safer, more environmentally benign cleaning and sanitation solutions, including aqueous ozone and electrolyzed water (EW).

Ozone has been widely studied as an anti-microbial for food application in this sector. It is approved for use by the FDA, USDA, FSIS, EPA and OSHA.

Electrolyzed water generator
Electrolyzed water generator

EW exhibits strong bactericidal, fungicidal, and viricidal effects in specific food applications but has not been as widely tested as ozone. It is approved in organic production and handling by USDA and received a Food Contact Notice (No. 1811) by the FDA for application of supplier specific technology to meat, poultry, fish, seafood; fruits and vegetables.

ISTC has a mobile aqueous ozone generator available to demonstrate the effectiveness of this technology. If your company is interested in learning more or scheduling a demonstration, contact Troy Walker or Dan Marsch.

Registration is open for the 2020 Emerging Contaminants in the Environment Conference

The 2020 Emerging Contaminants in the Environment Conference (ECEC20) will be on April 21-22, 2020, at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign, IL. Registration is open through April 2 and scholarships for undergraduate students are available.

The conference will feature presentations and posters on the latest in emerging contaminant research, policies, and outreach in the soil, water, and air. There will also be plenty of opportunities for discussion and networking with those interested in all aspects of emerging contaminants in the environment.

Researchers, educators, businesses, government officials, regulatory agencies, policy makers, outreach and extension professionals, environmental groups, members of the general public, and medical, veterinary, and public health professionals are encouraged to submit abstracts and attend the conference.

Forest Preserve District of Cook County wins Best Green Practices Award for sustainability and climate resiliency plan

The Forest Preserve District of Cook County recently won an Illinois Association of Park Districts Best Green Practices Award for their sustainability and climate resiliency plan. The plan calls for the Forest Preserve to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 percent by 2050

ISTC’s technical assistance team collaborated with them to gather information and develop the document.

Solar panel disposal problem surges as solar energy use grows

By Lisa Sheppard

Solar energy panels can be recycled, but most end up in landfills. How to handle broken or older panels in Illinois is a challenge that takes a statewide collaboration to figure out, according to Jennifer Martin, coordinator of the Solar Module Recycling Initiative at the University of Illinois’ Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC).

Solar modules used at solar energy farms and in homes are made from different technologies, all with valuable, recoverable, recyclable materials. No national regulations exist on how to discard panels, but some may contain toxic compounds such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead that can leach into the environment if landfilled.

In addition, the large size of solar panels can potentially fill up landfill sites quickly.

Given that solar power is the fastest growing energy source nationwide, and with a lifespan of 25 to 30 years, solar panels installed in the 2000s and before will soon need to be replaced. Also, panels that are broken in shipping or damaged by storms will be disposed of.

With around 360,000 modules currently installed in Illinois, an additional 6 million solar panels will be installed in Illinois by 2025, posing a significant solid waste problem by mid-century.

“Solar energy is a relatively new industry in the Midwest,” Martin said. “There are many factors that make it difficult to predict the number of solar modules that will come offline in Illinois. However, this looming threat is an opportunity to figure out how to prepare now for recycling and reuse options before a plan is urgently needed.”

Through the ISTC initiative, Martin is working with stakeholders in various national and state organizations to find solutions to the solid waste disposal of solar modules. Organizations include the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and others. To date, less than 1 percent of decommissioned solar modules are being recycled, according to SEIA.

The collaborators are working to determine the best options for states to prepare for end-of-life solar recycling and reuse. Predicting the amount of waste headed for the landfills is important, as well as finding locations to recycle the waste.

Some of the specific challenges with developing a recycling plan is the lack of publicly available information on recycling and recovery costs and the basic infrastructure necessary to collect and transport the modules to recycling centers once they become obsolete.

Modules that have declined to about 70 percent effectiveness can still have a useful life and be reused for schools, nonprofit agencies, and other users.

Washington State was the first to pass a solar stewardship bill requiring manufacturers selling solar modules to have an end-of-life recycling program for their products. Through this program, regional take-back locations accept panels with no cost to solar panel system owners.

New Jersey’s recently established Solar Panel Recycling Commission has been tasked to investigate options on recycling and other end-of-life management recommendations for the state.

In Illinois, collaborators hope to have a system in place before millions of panels are ready for disposal in the near future.

“The Midwest is a little behind other regions in the U.S. on adopting solar energy,” Martin said. “With this and other initiatives, the Midwest is forging ahead on finding solutions to a problem that will only become more pressing with time.”

Visit the ISTC website to learn more about the initiative and solar energy disposal in Illinois.

Media contacts

  • Jennifer Martin, Environmental Program Development Specialist, 217-300-3593; jm33@illinois.edu
  • Tricia Barker, Associate Director for Strategic Communications, 217-300-2327, tlbarker@illinois.edu

Meet Lisa Krause

Lisa Krause recently joined ISTC as a coastal management specialist working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Coastal Management Program. Lisa is happily returning home to Illinois after spending the last decade operating an ecological design/build company in Baltimore, Maryland. In this role, she worked with homeowners to develop landscapes that cycle nutrients, build habitats, and stormwater water interception. She also taught community workshops on these topics at urban farms, garden clubs, and community spaces throughout the state.

Lisa’s passion for resilience planning in communities led her to pursue an M.S. in Ecological Design and Planning at the Conway School of Landscape Design in Massachusetts, which she completed this year. She has authored several master planning projects, including working with the historic coastal village of Mystic, Connecticut on a climate resiliency plan for managing stormwater using green infrastructure, funded through The Nature Conservancy. She created site-specific intervention designs appropriate to the historic village that would mitigate flooding, accommodate increased frequency and severity of storms, and have the greatest impacts on protecting the watershed while creating habitat for wildlife in urban space.

Lisa will be involved in several coastal management projects and programs. She looks forward to providing support to the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative Green Infrastructure Training and Maintenance Workgroup, the Calumet Collaborative Brownfields Working Group, the Sand Management Working Group Regional Demo/Best Management Practices team, and working on the Coastal Water Quality Trends Analysis project. Lisa is enjoying her new role and is looking forward to working collaboratively and helping support sustainable solutions for coastal resilience in our communities all along Lake Michigan.

Composting food waste is localized strategy for landfill diversion

By Lisa Sheppard

Encouraging homeowners to compost their food waste locally yields numerous economic and environmental benefits for communities. University of Illinois researchers have developed a framework to help city planners and community organizations estimate potential cost savings if they can get residents on board.

Almost all food waste generated in the United States ends up in landfills. Until now, most food waste recovery efforts have been focused on business and industry. In a recent case study, Shantanu Pai at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) and co-authors calculated household-generated food waste for each of the 77 community areas in the city of Chicago.

“Using a very conservative estimate, a 10 percent participation rate, we found that composting for Chicago had the capacity to divert 27 percent of food waste generated by residents away from landfills,” Pai said. “This was shocking to us as we weren’t expecting the diversion rate to be that high.”

The benefits of community composting in neighborhoods and backyards include lowering the overall cost of solid waste collection, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, decreasing transportation of waste for processing and treatment, and helping extend the life of landfills so that new facilities don’t have to be built.

Yet, technology is geared toward larger systems. Also, a location and pick-up services would have to be determined, and participation rates may remain low in certain areas.

“Like recycling, with composting it’s all about personal choice and the choices that are made in households,” Pai said. “The decision to participate in a composting initiative may have nothing to do with economics or other factors.”

Participation in composting programs has been shown to increase when planners engage residents. The more homeowners know about composting and the benefits, the more likely they are to become involved. Past composting initiatives that provided free composting units and training to residents had high participation rates.

For planners and organizations, the framework consists of several steps. The volume of food waste generated from households can be calculated using the framework tool and U.S. Census data to identify households, housing types, and associated income levels, as higher income households tend to generate more food waste.

A composting plan requires identifying an acceptable location for composting. In most cases, individual composting would be in backyards, but in the Chicago community composting study, for example, compost sites were in parks. Other locations could be urban gardens or farms.

The framework also recommends using a 10 percent participation rate for single households, though local data from solid waste management programs will provide a more accurate estimate.

Finally, planners estimate the effort’s impact, which can be a selling point for local composting. The framework is designed for its ease in calculating impacts.

“In this framework, we’ve used only data that are publicly available,” Pai said. “As long as city and community planners have access to the Internet and to GIS, they should be able to calculate the amount of food waste that can be diverted from landfills. The math is easy.”

Pai noted that localized composting is not preferable to larger-scale waste management efforts. Instead, the framework can be used for information gathering to consider composting a complementary strategy as part of the entire solid waste management plan.

Communities interested in receiving planning support can contact the ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program at 217-333-8940 or via the ISTC web site.

This study was published in the journal Sustainable Cities and Society.

Media contact: Tricia Barker, Associate Director for Strategic Communications, 217-300-2327, tlbarker@illinois.edu