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Dr. Sherri Mason leading first-ever Great Lakes plastic pollution survey
Monday, July 16, 2012

Great Lakes from Space

Dr. Sherry MasonAbove, the Great Lakes of the U.S., from space (NASA).

Teaming up with the 5 Gyres Institute, Dr. Sherri Mason, right, will coordinate a project to measure the amount of plastic in the Great Lakes during a course this summer at SUNY Fredonia. 

The Environmental Sciences at SUNY Fredonia>>

By Brittany Neddo, '12

Editor's UPDATE: The Great Lakes Plastic Pollution Study is underway. Follow on Facebook>>

This summer, SUNY Fredonia will lead the first-ever study of plastic pollution focused solely on the Great Lakes, and its students will have the opportunity to play a key role.

Sherri “Sam” Mason, a professor within SUNY Fredonia’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and coordinator of its Environmental Sciences program, in collaboration with the 5 Gyres Institute, will lead the survey which will be offered as part of a three-week summer Environmental Sciences Field Study course in July.

Students will collect samples and formulate an analysis from their findings.

Fredonia’s students will be among 20 from five different regional institutions who will attempt to quantify the amount of plastic polluting the fresh water Great Lakes. The study also intends on raising local and regional awareness of just how much plastic is filtering in and out of the open waters.

With 35 million people living within the Great Lakes ecosystem, most of whom use and lose plastic, as well as the well-known abundance of plastic within the world's oceans, there is substantial reason to believe that plastic debris will be found in the Great Lakes.

“Roughly 80 percent of plastic debris found in the oceans comes from land,” says Dr. Mason, who has been actively involved in a wide variety of environmental and sustainable initiatives on campus over the past five years. “The Great Lakes comprise a flow-through water system and empty into the ocean. If our hypothesis holds true, we should find significant amount of plastic debris here as well.”

This research project is being made possible through a partnership Mason has established with the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization which has surveyed all five of the oceanic gyres and seen the preponderance of plastic first-hand, and is dedicated to bringing awareness to the global issue of plastic polluting the oceans. To support the work, the collaborative team was recently awarded a $10,000 grant from the Burning River Foundation, a Cleveland, Ohio-based entity dedicated to improving, maintaining and celebrating the vitality of the region’s freshwater resources.

The idea to collaborate with the 5 Gyres Institute was a result of their shared interest in trawling various bodies of waters in search for plastic debris. With the help of two members of 5 Gyres, Mason and students will have the proper training and tools needed to carry out the survey. A “manta trawl” — a net system used for sampling the surface of a body of water for debris — will be purchased for the sampling they do.

The life of many aquatic species becomes endangered as the amount of plastic accumulates and spreads throughout bodies of water, Mason explains. Various plastic products such as plastic bags and water/juice bottles when not properly disposed of make their way into our lakes and rivers and streams. In the process they can become fragmented under the action of water. Marine animals can become entangled or eat these plastic fragments thinking that they are food. Plastic pollution leads to the deaths of one million aquatic animals annually. “As the world is an interconnected system, we should understand that what is happening to one species within the system is happening or going to impact all others. This is not just about the aquatic animals, it is a significant concern with regard to human health as well,” Mason explains.

According to 5 Gyres, just about everything we consume contains petroleum plastic, a material that is designed to last forever but we throw away instantly. The organization’s website states that plastic pollution has entered the marine food web and “has become a plague in the oceans that continues to clog waterways, contaminating marine ecosystems.”

Mason has actively encouraged students and area residents for years to reduce the amount of plastic they consume, avoid products that contain plastic or are sealed in plastic, and eliminate the use of plastic bags in retail transactions.

This course will count as a three-credit course for ESCI 490, but Natural Science majors may also take it to fulfill research credits. Mason hopes to have the analysis and manuscript fully completed by December 2012, and hopes to add the survey as a permanent part of the course if the results come back as expected.

To learn more, contact Dr. Mason at or (716) 673-3292.

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