By: Judith S. Weis
About a year ago, the network of former AAAS Policy Fellows was discussing a call for session proposals for the 2019 AAAS meeting, the theme of which was going to be interdisciplinarity – “Science Transcending Boundaries.” I had long been thinking that environmental scientists concerned about microplastics needed to interact with textile, materials, and fiber scientists, because the vast majority of microplastics in the environment are microfibers, which come off synthetic clothing in washing machines. I know that environmental scientists can find and describe the problem, but we do not have the skills to solve them. Textile scientists have the skills to re-engineer synthetic clothing so that they won’t shed (as many) microfibers.
I proposed this idea to the group, and it was received with enthusiasm. Margaret Murphy, another former fellow, who had spent her fellowship with EPA working on the microplastics issue agreed to organize it with me.
The proposal “Environmental and Textile Scientists Combating Microplastic Pollution” was accepted by AAAS for the meeting. Its description was as follows:
Plastic pollution caused by human activities is everywhere. Beaches covered with plastic bottles, bags, and straws attest to the problem. Microplastics, tiny pieces ranging from a few millimeters to microns in size, are less obvious, but ubiquitous. They have various sources, but the most abundant type in many areas are microfibers from synthetic textiles such as polyester, which can shed thousands of fibers when used or machine-washed. Many of these fibers are too tiny to be trapped in filters and they flow into sewage systems. Some are trapped by sewage treatment plants, but many enter aquatic systems where they number in the trillions or quadrillions. As they are plastic, they do not readily break down. Found everywhere, even in the deepest parts of the ocean, microplastics can attract chemical pollutants from the water and may be eaten by plankton and larger filter feeders such as clams and oysters. Microfibers and their attached pollutants are passed through food webs, and evidence is growing that eating microplastic harms the health of marine animals. The solution to microfiber pollution may lie in short- and long-term approaches: better filtration systems and the design of synthetic fabrics that do not shed fibers, or switching to natural or biosynthetic alternatives. This session brings together environmental scientists who study microplastic pollution and textile scientists who are developing new synthetic fabrics to discuss the problem and proposed solutions.
The final panel consisted of:
· Dr. Chelsea Rochman, of the University of Toronto (a “rock star” of microplastic research) Chelsea presented general information about microplastic sources, fates and effects, focusing on microfibers;
· Dr. Melik Demirel, a materials scientist at Penn State spoke about the biosynthetic fiber he developed called Squitex, which is comparable to the silk found in squid ring teeth. Squitex, made from squid teeth proteins, is self-healing and completely biodegradable the protein; and
· Sarah Edwards, Director of Eunomia Research & Consulting and Vice President of PWFP who explained a range of policy measures that could be used to reduce microplastics release including:
o Development of standard test measure to quantify the release of microfibers from clothing;
o Setting limits of microfiber release effectively leading to garments that shed the most being removed from the market;
o Extended Producer Responsibility based funding for measures to capture microfibers in the washing machine or as a last resort in the programs to cover the cost
The session had a large interested audience with excellent questions and discussion, making it a huge success.
Following the session, the PR office of Penn State sent out some press releases about Melik Demirels’s work, which were picked up by a number of outlets, for example: https://www.earth.com/news/biosynthetic-fibers-microplastics/. This is the sort of research that can lead to solutions.
The AAAS meeting was the start of a discussion that should continue. Only through multidisciplinary cooperation can the issue of microplastics begin to be tackled.
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Plastic Bag Work Group
Jordan Christensen reports that the Bag Work Group’s current focus is on supporting education and outreach in areas that are currently in the process of introducing or considering legislation on plastic bags. This includes identifying how to get bills off the ground, including the key environmental and economic talking points. The group has also identified other types of plastic bag outreach and education actions that could be transferable to other areas. This includes ideas like”take a bag leave a bag”, getting reusable bags for delivery at restaurants included in bag bills, and incentive programs for people who bring their own bag. Efforts like these could help supplement policy with education and engagement.
Lisa Ruggero reports that the Messaging Group is working on a half-page flyer for partnership members to use when they are at public events to spread the word about the Plastic Free Waters Partnership. The flyer’s call-to-action is going to center on how to join the partnership and why. The flyer will include the Plastic Free Waters”hashtag”. The flyer will be finalized in 1 month of the October meeting.
The messaging group is also working to align messaging strategy with specific materials, based on the workgroup activities. A different material will be the focus of social media and messaging strategy each quarter. This will also take into account current legislation— for example, the messaging group will be focusing on the upcoming Styrofoam ban in NYC to align messages and approaches. The messaging group will also produce reminders and promotional material, such as curated Instagram posts, tweets, and social media templates that can be used by partners. Concurrently, the messaging group is identifying ways to tout the success of partner members and highlight achievements.
Microplastics Work Group
Catie Tobin of the Microplastics working group reports that they will be implementing a survey for people working on the issue of microplastics to best identify the short and long term priorities.
Balloon Task Force
Dini Checko reports that the Balloon Task Force is looking for members. Clean Ocean Action, a PFW partner, has found an uptick in the amount of balloon pieces collected. Virginia Clean Waters has also found that there is a large percentage of debris coming from plastic balloons. The first priority for this task force is to put together a communications package that includes facts, resources, and other essential information on the impacts of balloon releases. Balloons could be the next straws, and we need to ensure that people understand the impact of this kind of material
Reusables Task Force
Karen Bray reports that the new Reusables Task Force (formerly the to-go container working group and the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board) will be working specifically on shifting away from single use to-go containers to reusable materials in New York City. There will be five workstreams: 1.) market research 2.) pilot programs in order to show success and feasibility 3.) policy research to identify barriers to policies about this topic 4.) promotions and brand awareness and 5.) partnerships and funding (atthis point premature, still looking at proof of concept).
Straws Work Group
Allison McCarthy reports that the main priority for the Straws group is to develop and distribute a toolkit specifically for restaurants with resources for taking the first steps to eliminate plastic straws, switch to paper or reusable alternatives (if necessary), and educate customers. The straws work group is also working on how to engage the disability community in conversations about straws, and how to address needs of people living with disabilities. The straws work group is also focusing on ensuring that information and developments, such as engaging new businesses and restaurants,is shared between working groups and PFW member organizations.
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The Plastic Free Waters Partnership welcomes you to join us for our next full partnership meeting on Tuesday, November 13, 2018.
The meeting will take place at the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Region 2, 290 Broadway, NY, NY 10007, room 27A. The meeting will feature a panel discussion on DESIGN, INNOVATION and CIRCULAR ECONOMY.The afternoon will be dedicated to workgroup breakout sessions. A full agenda is coming soon.
Please RSVP to the meeting and specify if you are attending in person or remotely (by phone/computer; details for conferencing are below).
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