Behrend professor Mason to talk freshwater plastics


Mariia Novoselia
Staff writer

A day of sailing on the Great Lakes led Sherri “Sam” Mason to a new facet of plastic pollution research. 

The history of plastic pollution in freshwater systems and the issues connected to it are only some of the topics that Mason, associate research professor and director of sustainability at Penn State University’s Behrend College, will cover in her presentation, organized by the Chautauqua Science Group in collaboration with the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative.

Titled “From Land to Sea: The (Little Known) Story of Plastic,” her lecture is at 9:15 a.m. today in the Hurlbut Church Sanctuary. 

It was on a sailboat in the summer of 2011 that Mason, who was teaching a course on ocean plastic pollution, looked around at the Great Lakes water and asked herself a question that ended up changing the narrative of her scientific career: “Why have I been teaching about the oceans when I have the Great Lakes in my backyard?” 

Mason returned to her lab and started looking for research on the topic – “fully expecting to find references, fully expecting that somebody had done this work already” – but found nothing. This, she said, prompted her to reach out to multiple NGOs asking if they had any data. Alas, once again – nothing. 

“I was like: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. … It was 2011,” she said. “I thought by then, there are no new ideas, right? I was really surprised.”

Mason also could not find any data on freshwater systems in general. Frustration, she said, turned into excitement when —  together with a colleague from Niagara University — she  set out to create the research she was missing. 

Their first lake expedition was in 2012, and their first paper on freshwater plastic pollution was published in 2013. At the same time, two other scholars put forward their research on the same topic. 

“We didn’t know each other, … so it’s kind of funny that we all had this idea at the same time – 2013 was the first year that you saw any scientific articles about plastic pollution and freshwater systems,” Mason said. 

Research on plastic pollution in the oceans, on the other hand, has a significantly longer history. Many, Mason said, date it back to the late 1990s, tying it to the works of Captain Charles Moore on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a vortex of plastic debris in the North Pacific Ocean. 

Plastic, however, has been around for even longer. As a material, Mason said, it “came onto the stage in a significant way” after World War II, and has grown more prominent since that time.

Plastic pollution in freshwater systems differs from ocean plastic pollution not just in the amount of scholarly attention it receives. 

“We don’t have whales and dolphins, and so (plastic pollution) doesn’t create the negative visuals in the Great Lakes that you get in the oceans, which makes it really hard to tell the story. … That sounds so awful to say, and I don’t mean that cruelly,” Mason said. “It’s just that it’s hard to get people to understand the scope of the problem.” 

On the brighter side, she said, research in freshwater plastic pollution has helped raise awareness about microplastics in the oceans, since 97% of plastics found in the Great Lakes is micro-sized.  

“A microplastic is any piece of plastic that is smaller than five (millimeters), which is kind of like the size of a fingernail,” Mason said. She thinks the definition is arbitrary because “micro” means “smaller than a millimeter.”

Debunking myths and misconceptions, Mason said, is one of the reasons why her job is important. One of those myths, she said, is that recycling plastic is a viable solution to plastic pollution.

“More of it, actually, leaks into the environment than is recycled, which is insanely sad,” she said.

Another misconception about plastic that Mason has encountered is that it is clean.

“I never understood that. Have you ever walked into a factory? That’s where plastic is made. Who walks into a factory and goes: ‘I want to lick this?’ ” she said. “I would much rather go to a restaurant and use a fork that was washed and used by a million people before me. … This idea that somehow something is wrapped in plastic and, therefore, it’s clean – no, I don’t think so; not to mention the fact that everybody who has ever used a plastic fork knows that the second you try and use it, it breaks.”

Mason said she wants people to understand that the solution to the plastic pollution problem is multi-faceted. 

“A key component to it is that we have to use less,” she said. “Any time people are trying to tout the benefits of plastic, they will talk about healthcare, they’ll talk about cars, they’ll talk about construction. That’s all well and good, but those three things together add up to maybe 10% of the market.”

Plastic, Mason said, is everywhere – “whether you’re at the top of Mount Everest or you’re at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.” On top of that, she said the production of plastics is not decreasing. 

But, Mason said, there are still things that can and need to be done. 

“The real solutions are pretty basic, which should absolutely make people feel like they’re in control,” she said. “They should feel empowered and walk away going: ‘OK, climate change is a hard nut to crack, but this is something I can do: I can remember my reusable bags, I can refuse to take a straw when I go drink margaritas next to the beach.’ ”

Mason said in order to reduce the amount of plastic she uses on a daily basis, she created a little game for herself. Every time she runs out of a product, she looks for a plastic-free alternative. For example, once she ran out of toothpaste, instead of buying more in a plastic tube, Mason opted for toothpaste tablets that are sold in cardboard containers. Not only are they eco-friendly, she said, but they are also easier to travel with. 

“There are real … changes that (people) can make in their life that have a significant impact on the environment around them,” Mason said. 


The author Mariia Novoselia

Mariia Novoselia is a senior at Western Kentucky University studying journalism with a minor in political science. Born and raised in Odesa, Ukraine, she previously attended Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University. She has experience writing for student publications and interning at a local newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Summer 2023 will be her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua, where she will be covering environmental issues. Mariia is also a music enthusiast, and when not writing, she enjoys singing and playing the guitar.