On a sunny spring day at Lake Esau, just half a kilometer from Lake Huron, 5th grade students searched through the beach sand for lost objects. Now, these weren't the hidden treasures that can be found with a metal detector, they were looking for the presence of broken down plastics and other marine debris.
The rising Junior High students spent their school year learning about the long lifespan of plastics and educating their peers on their increasing presence in the natural environment. They also focused classroom inquiries on microplastics, which are less than 5 mm in size and break down from a larger piece of plastic, or come in the form of a microbead or microfiber. The two 5th grade classes from Ella White and Lincoln elementary conducted single-use plastic waste audits in their lunchrooms, created an instructional video demonstrating a simple process to separate microplastics from beach sand, and gave informative presentations to encourage their younger peers to refuse single use plastic containers.
On the first day of their two day field visit to camp Chickagami, they used a large sieve to separate any foreign objects from the beach sand from samples they collected. The petri dish in figure 1 contains all of the debris that was extracted from the beach sand, which was categorized into whole and fragmented items. Whole items included things like the gum wrapper or craft beads, and likely came from beachgoers who dropped them in the sand.
The students considered the malleability of lightweight plastics in wind and water to find the origins of the fragmented items. They suspected that three small metal rings came off of a fishing pole, and one student even identified a piece of fiberglass that likely came off a fishing boat. Marine debris and plastic pollution comes from a variety of sources both from land and on the water and they already understand those connections.
Early the next morning, students donned waders and used plankton nets to trawl on the water surface in Lake Esau to look for microplastics in the water. When they examined the filtered samples one week later, color fibers appeared under the microscope that they suspected were microfibers, a synthesized fiber that enters the water stream from washing clothes.
We contacted leading researcher in microplastic pollution Dr. Sherri Mason, who advised that the sample would have to undergo physical and chemical testing to confirm microfibers. She suggested the Hot Needle Test, which says a very hot needle should melt or curl a piece of plastic. This could be a viable method to continue the students’ research and test whether samples are plastic or organic fibers.
This firsthand field experience connected the student’s advocacy with their watershed and showed them that marine debris is a local and global issue that will require innovative solutions to interrupt this cycle. The students will continue to be environmental stewards as they learn and apply their knowledge within their clubs and advocacy organizations. Each individual has a unique relationship with the environment and will contribute their perspective to the generation of solution makers.