A student and two professors pose on the rocky shoreline of the Potomac River in front of a bridge on a sunny day.
Category: Discovery & Impact

Title: Georgetown Students, Faculty Take on the Very Big World of Microplastics

Earlier this year, news broke that bottled water contains more plastic than originally thought.

The report was the latest from studies on microplastics, or miniscule fragments of plastic, that have been found all over the world: on Mt. Everest and in Antarctica, in coral reefs and the Great Lakes, in teabags, oysters, and our own bodies.

Scientists know microplastics are pervasive. But they don’t have a universal standard in this emerging field to identify or measure these tiny particles, says YuYe J. Tong, a chemistry professor and director of the Environmental Metrology & Policy Program (EMAP). And some of these particles are so tiny – 1,000 times smaller than a strand of hair – that measuring them, let alone standardizing the measurements, is a challenge. Without a universal standard, scientists can’t establish the extent of the issue or the level of exposure to humans to inform guidelines and policy.

“How are you going to manage or eliminate it? You have to measure it first,” Tong said. “That’s what we’re training students to do. We teach students to understand science and how science can be part of policymaking.

I’m a true believer that you can only maximize the societal impact of science and technology with the right support of developing and implementing soundest policy.”

In a year-long project, students and faculty members from EMAP and the Earth Commons are dipping into rivers and using a highly specialized infrared microscope to detect and measure just how much microplastic is there — and where it’s coming from. 

Learning in the River

One male student wearing waders steps bends down into the Potomac River to collect water as another student and professor watch from the shoreline.
Wilps collects water from the Potomac River near Georgetown University in December with Chen and Hanson.

In December, Andrew Wilps (G’24) waded into the cold waters of the Anacostia River. He held out a jar in front of him, careful not to get any plastic residue from his rubber boots into the sample. 

With his classmates, Ava Hanson (G’24) and Alexis Lashbaugh (G’24), they filled three jars with water and measured the river’s salinity, temperature and other parameters to record the water quality. They drove to four other sites that day, up and down the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, before delivering the samples safely to a fridge in EMAP’s lab. 

Their field work was part of a year-long study led by Jesse Meiller, an associate teaching professor in the Earth Commons Institute who specializes in microplastics, in partnership with Dejun Chen, an assistant teaching professor in EMAP, and colleagues from American University. 

This research contributes in part to a grant funded by the Water Resources Research Institute, which has the team looking at how population density and land use impact the variety and abundance of microplastics that are found in different waterways around DC, assessing variations upstream and downstream of the city. 

“I am really curious about where these pollutants are coming from and are they connected,” Meiller said. “We know the majority of the plastic that ends up in the ocean originates on land. And then it moves to the rivers. It makes a lot of sense to focus on looking at the rivers as major pathways of microplastics to oceans.”

A female student wearing purple gloves dips a water measurement instrument into a river from the shoreline.
Hanson measures the river’s salinity, temperature and other parameters to record the water quality.

The students contributed to the field work and lab analysis as part of their capstone project. But without a universal measurement standard, they had to refine some of their methods as they went, Hanson said. 

“It’s an emerging field, so that’s why we spent so much time on our method development because people have been successful in quantifying and characterizing microplastics, but there’s no one accepted or standardized way to do it yet,” she said.

Hanson found the capstone project and the EMAP program have helped give her a strong knowledge base, particularly in environmental policy and regulations, that she can apply in real-time to her job as a biologist in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

While Hanson came to EMAP looking for policy expertise, Wilps came for science. He found the research field work is directly correlated to his work at the EPA. In Wilps’ internship there, he works with a plastic reduction subcommittee in the state and local government relations division. He’s been sharing his research and other learnings on microplastics with the subcommittee, as well as policies to counteract plastic contamination.

“I’m very lucky in the sense that I’m already applying what I learned in EMAP right to work,” he said. “A lot of this is at the forefront of research right now, and that’s where this program helps you learn where the policy needs to be guided to help solve these very complex issues. 

Nothing could have set me up to work at the EPA better than EMAP.”

He’s also found the capstone project has given him a new perspective on how to develop policy around microplastics going forward.

“If we’re going to look at plastic reduction efforts, we need to not just assess the plastics that are in the water. We need to account for the microplastics that degrade and that are way more difficult to detect and not represented in a lot of plastic strategies and plastic policies.”

The Future of Plastics 

As Wilps, Lashbaugh and Hanson graduate, a new student will begin working with faculty members to analyze the remaining seasonal samples over the summer. 

Dejun Chen, who oversees the students’ capstone projects, said that the EMAP program, which has unique partnerships with the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Agilent Technologies, Inc., is different from other environmental master’s programs. EMAP places a strong emphasis on the science behind policy, he said.  

They can apply their scientific knowledge in this program to their future career,” Chen said. “That’s how we try to build an interdisciplinary program between the scientific evidence and the policymaking.”

Tong agreed.

“I always joke with our students, I say EMAP is a transformer. We transform history majors into science, we transform literature majors into science, we transform Middle East language majors into science. They come out competing well in the market.”

While it’s too early to release the results of the project, Meiller said they have noticed the kinds of plastics varying from site to site. In her previous work as a marine ecologist, she’s studied some of the additives to plastics as well as contaminants that adsorb, or stick to, plastic particles in the environment.

“Whenever an organism ingests plastics, usually it’s unintentional because it gets mistaken for food. This oftentimes results in physical problems with those plastics building up in the GI system of the organisms,” the marine ecologist said. “And so it affects organisms both on an individual and a population level.” 

As plastic waste is anticipated to nearly triple globally by 2060, according to a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), this work to establish standards and study the sources of microplastics has taken on even more importance.

Wilps is eager to continue the task.

“It’s work that needs to be done, and I’m here to work on it.”