Environmental advocacy group PennEnvironmnent recently led a survey of Pennsylvania’s most popular waterways — from Pittsburgh’s three rivers to the Susquehanna and Lackawanna — looking for the presence of microplastics.

“And sadly, the results were astounding,” said Faran Savitz, conservation associate with PennEnvironment, in a Zoom press conference on Wednesday.

“In all, we collected over 300 water samples from 53 waterways and we found microplastics in every single waterway from east to west and north to south, from the smallest, most pristine looking stream, to Pennsylvania’s biggest lakes and rivers.”

What does it mean for us?

“You consume about a credit card’s worth of plastics a week,” Savitz said.

Plastics don’t break down into organic components the way an apple core or piece of paper does, Savitz said. They simply break down into smaller pieces of plastic. Pieces smaller than five millimeters are called microplastics.

“Researchers found microplastics in so many places, from Mount Everest to the deepest parts of the ocean, and even in our foods, air we breathe, and rainwater,” said Savitz. “And it’s really concerning because microplastics not only contain chemicals that are harmful to our health, and to the health of wildlife, but they can concentrate toxins that are already in the environment, acting as a vector for harmful chemicals.”

Since there is currently no remedy for microplastics in the water, preventing their presence in the first place is the priority.

PennEnvironment’s recommendations include passing the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced in February 2020, which includes responsibility requirements for producers. The group also wants to stop pollution at the state level by getting the legislature to pass the Zero Waste PA package of bills, which includes eliminating single-use plastics — banning straws (except upon request) and foam food containers, addressing food waste and electronic waste and increasing funding for recycling programs.

Another goal is repealing the preemption on municipal plastic ordinances, allowing states and towns to pass ordinances, such as banning plastic bags.

“There is no silver bullet solution for the mini-menace of microplastics,” said Savitz. “Fundamentally, we need to cut plastic pollution off at the source and change the way society deals with our waste.”

(NEXTpittsburgh previously reported on this issue in an interview with Dr. Sherri Mason, a Heinz Award winner and leader in the movement against microplastics. Learn more about it here.)

Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05) in Delaware County said she plans to sponsor the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act when it is reintroduced and she’s hoping to be able to work with statewide initiatives such as Zero Waste PA.

“Items like styrofoam containers, plastic bags and other single-use plastic objects routinely end up in landfills and incinerators where they deteriorate our environment and exacerbate public health problems,” said Scanlon. “When we incinerate these types of products, harmful toxins and chemicals are released into the air we breathe, and this disproportionately affects our most vulnerable communities.”

Congresswoman Mary Gay Scanlon samples water from the Darby Creek at the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge Heinz with PennEnvironment. Photo by Hannah Pittel.

Americans create more than 35 million tons of plastic waste every year, and less than 10% of it is recycled.

Microfibers, the most common type of plastic found in waterways, represent a particularly difficult problem. They come from textiles, which can be shed through normal, routine washing machine use, and they’re next to impossible for water treatment plants to filter out.

State Rep. Tim Briggs (Montgomery County) helped collect water for PennEnvironment’s project from Valley Creek, which runs through Valley Forge.

“It was shocking, you know, that there’s plastic there because the water was so pristine,” said Briggs. “There was no trash around. So it’s a good reminder that even in our most beautiful settings, you know, the microplastics show up.”

The problem is not going to get better by itself, and it has the potential to get even worse.

“Some studies have shown Lake Erie to have some of the highest concentrations of microplastics of any body of water in the world,” said Savitz.

What’s described as the biggest plastics sorting facility in the world, International Recycling Group, is seeking a permit in Erie County. The word recycling isn’t what you think.

“A lot of this plastic actually wouldn’t be going towards recycling as we traditionally think of it,” said Stephanie Wein, clean water and conservation advocate with PennEnvironment. “It would actually go towards plastics-to-fuel processes to fuel things like coke plants.”

(Read more about that process in this NEXTpittsburgh article about the advanced recycling bill, aka chemical recycling.)

Wein said the process includes what’s been described as “a giant cheese grater” — with microplastic pollution flying from the site close to Lake Erie. “That’s something we’re looking into,” she added.

And this is all before the massive Shell cracker plant in Beaver County starts up.

“I think we can pretty safely say that the Shell plant will increase the amount of microplastics we’re finding, not just around the plant, but in the entire state of Pennsylvania,” said Savitz.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.