The Plastics We Don’t Talk About

Written by Monica Zaky

This is an example of the variety of microplastics that can be collected from bodies of water. Notice the diversity in shape, color, and size.

What if I told you that your facial scrub may be adding to the abundance of plastics in our rivers, lakes, and oceans? Those microbeads that exfoliate your face are often made of plastic. Plastics are everywhere. They are used for packaging, beauty supplies, agriculture, furniture, and even our cars. Sadly, a lot of plastics end up in water of some sorts; in creeks, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, plastics are there, and they are becoming unavoidable. Large plastics break down into tiny pieces called microplastics, or plastics that are less than 5mm in length. Microplastics may come from anything such as clothing to beauty products such as a facial scrub. How many of these plastics are in our water systems, and how might they be interacting with other pollutants in the water?

This summer, I worked with a team to conduct a systematic review/meta-analysis on microplastic and pollutant concentrations in different marine and freshwater ecosystems. We then plan on using the data to analyze trends between microplastics and pollutants. Initially, this research would’ve been focused more locally in Virginia to collect and analyze microplastics in the Potomac River watershed. However, COVID-19 caused these plans to stall, and instead of being in the field or in the lab, my team and I worked on creating larger data sets from home. We examined literature as well as databases for concentrations of microplastics and pollutants, focusing on the following regions: the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the San Francisco Bay, and some other minor regions.

This picture is of the Mississippi Sound, a region in the Gulf of Mexico that I focused much of my research on.

Personally, I worked on collecting data for the Gulf of Mexico. What I found was a surprising lack of research on microplastics and pollutants in the gulf. From the small amount of research that I did find, a lot of it had data gaps or was collected in a way that made it unusable. Although disappointing, it points to a greater issue: microplastics are not talked about or researched nearly enough. For something that is directly impacted by humans and that may also have an effect back on to humans, one would think it would be more widely researched. Understanding something that is quite literally very small can help us to create larger changes. Those changes may be as significant as amending policy to something as small as swapping out a face wash. In the end, no matter what the changes are, they aid in working towards the larger goal of preserving and maintaining our ecosystems.

Although we did not get to conduct the research we had initially planned, I still learned a great deal about research. Research is not easy. It can get messy, and it often does get messy. Being able to adapt and change is incredibly important because you never know how things will go. With COVID-19 I had to adapt, but because of that I learned a lot. A great deal of the work I did was tedious, but the fruits of my labor were not disappointing. I also learned that anyone can conduct research no matter what skills you may have, or even what skills you may lack. The important part is having a question and a desire to find the answer. Here’s the cherry on top: you can do this all from the comfort of your home.


Monica Zaky is currently an undergraduate student at George Mason University. She is pursuing a B.S. in Forensic Science with a minor in Computational and Data Sciences and set to graduate May of 2021. She is also pursuing an Accelerated M.S. in Forensic Biology, with plans to graduate in 2022.

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