Researchers: Tiny plastic particles clogging our waters threaten nature

The shoreline of the Passaic River in Newark is plastic soup. Plastic bags, bottles and broken Styrofoam stretch far and are piled high. But researchers are looking for the pieces you can't easily see: micro-plastics.

"The visible trash, when it's been in the water for a long time and it's subject to the mechanical degradation from the waves and wind, photo-degeneration from the light, it's going to start to break down," said Dr. Allison Fitzgerald, a professor at New Jersey City University and a researcher with NY/NJ Baykeeper.

A 2016 study by that group estimated 166 million pieces of plastic, mostly micro-plastics, are floating in the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary.

Fitzgerald comes out to the Passaic River and other locations a few times a month with a superfine mesh net called a Manta Trawl to look for micro-plastics.

"The fish isn't going to eat that giant plastic bottle, but it is going to ingest these smaller particles," Fitzgerald said. "And once it gets ingested by marine life, either the marine life is going to die or its going to get passed up the food chain, to larger predators, to us."

Micro-plastics are everywhere. Recent research has identified them in bottled water, the salt we put on our food, even in human waste.

"It's proof everything that we've done in the last decades is now catching up with us," Fitzgerald said.

The samples Fitzgerald and her students collect are taken back to a lab on campus where they're separated and sorted. The goal is to build a database quantifying and qualifying these micro-plastics and their locations. They can use the data to promote advocacy and legislative change.

"We take this data and we go to the government and we say, 'Look, we found all these plastics in the water, now what are you going to do about it?'" Fitzgerald said.

Ultimately the goal of collecting, sorting and studying the micro-plastics is to make more people aware of the problem and encourage citizen scientists to get involved in finding solutions.

"We want to now take it to the streets, so to speak, and take it to your backyards," Fitzgerald said, "and let everyone see how using your little bit of the ocean and our great tools and methods, that we can bring everyone into this fight."

NY/NJ Baykeeper is always looking for volunteers to join its efforts.