Courtesy of Dr. Mason.

Every piece of plastic in your home began as a nurdle.

Nurdles are tiny pellets of plastic that serve as the raw materials for the vast majority of plastic products. They’re created in factories like the coming ethane cracker plant in Beaver County and then shipped to manufacturing facilities around the world.

Here’s the problem: Given their small size, its easy for nurdles to spill out into the wider environment. That includes our drinking water.

Dr. Sherri Mason, the sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend in Erie, says they are “ubiquitous” in Western Pennsylvania’s water supply.

“I do beach cleanups all over the Great Lakes,” says Dr. Mason.  “In 10 or 15 minutes, I can find a nurdle.”

While there has been much study and media attention focused on the spread of microplastics into our oceans, Mason has emerged as a leader in the small but growing study of their effects on lakes and rivers far from the coasts.

Her team’s research in the Great Lakes played a significant role in the passage of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which banned companies that manufacture toothpaste and facial creams from adding small pellets of plastic to their products.

Dr. Mason is quick to emphasize that her own work was only a small part of a much larger popular movement that led to the law’s passing. “The reality is that people were instrumental in that fight,” she says. “There was a huge and consistent outcry.”

Last year, Dr. Mason was named a Heinz Awards winner in the Public Policy category for her groundbreaking research identifying the presence of microbeads and microfibers in fresh water, and for raising awareness of their potential health impact, resulting in state, federal and international policy change. She was in town to accept the award and to speak about her work.

She will return to Pittsburgh on May 1 to discuss plastic pollution at Women for a Healthy Environment’s annual May Day event. Her goal in speaking at events like these is to help the public appreciate the way small, individual consumer decisions  — like not using disposable plastic straws — can still have a large impact.

“Science in isolation doesn’t create change. You have to get the information out there,” she says.

Regarding plastics pollution in particular, she fully understands why many citizens feel overwhelmed: It’s easy to feel powerless, she says, when billion-dollar corporations are filling our environment with plastic products.

“We want to express the harm of environmental issues,” says Dr. Mason. “But we don’t want people to feel paralyzed.”

At the individual level, Dr. Mason advocates for “low-hanging fruit.” First, switch to reusable bags and food containers. Then move on to more ambitious lifestyle changes. “Just focus on one product,” she says. “Find ways to eliminate disposable plastics one at a time.”

As for the political side of the battle, Dr. Mason continues to push for stronger laws to get plastics and related chemicals out of our ecosystem. In particular, she’s focused on legislation that would extend the legal responsibilities producers have for their goods.

In the same way that tech companies like Apple and Best Buy recycle consumer tech products for free, Mason envisions laws that would create an infrastructure for any company that produces plastic to provide similar services.

“The basic framework here is that if a company is going to manufacture a product,” she says, “they are responsible for the full life cycle of that product.”

Mason admits that building such an initiative will be a slow and time-consuming process but she already sees the popular support for it.

Across the country, advocacy campaigns and local laws focused on single-use plastics are gaining steam, which Dr. Mason says are critical “small steps that will lead us to this bigger vision.”

“You don’t climb Mt. Everest in one jump,” she says. “There are millions of steps along the way.”

Get tickets for the May Day event here.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.