Abundance of Microplastics in Freshwater Streams of Rural Areas

Publication Date


Document Type



Biological Sciences


Catherine O'Reilly

Mentor Department

Geography, Geology and the Environment


A relatively new type of pollutant called microplastics have emerged in freshwater streams that can cause damage to wildlife and the overall health of aquatic ecosystems. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic around 5mm or smaller that are showing up all over the world in aquatic and marine environments. These microplastics are being produced by a number of different sources; one being microbeads, which are miniscule pieces of polyethylene, used in cosmetics and exfoliating beauty products. While other sources come from larger pieces of plastic debris that have further broken down into smaller pieces over time, these small particles of plastic are passing through the filtration systems of wastewater treatment plants with ease and into the surrounding streams. With wastewater treatment plants being the gateway for microplastics into aquatic ecosystems, we will be testing for a significant difference in the concentrations of microplastics upstream from the plants versus downstream. Samples will be taken every week in the stream surrounding the Village of Morton's wastewater treatment plant, both upstream of the effluent and downstream of the effluent. The samples will then be taken to the laboratory and processed using standardized methods to dry out and digest the organic material from the original samples, leaving behind the microplastics to be sorted and counted. We predict that, because the filtration systems of most wastewater treatment plants are not well suited to stop microplastics, there will be a higher concentration downstream of the effluent than upstream of the effluent. We also predict that the microplastics found will contain more microfibers rather than microbeads due to the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. Microplastics have been thought to be substantially more concentrated in highly populated areas like big cities, but evidence of microplastics now being present in rural areas suggests that these little particles are becoming a much larger problem.



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