University of Wisconsin-Superior associate professor of chemistry Lorena Rios Mendoza, along with colleagues from the UW-Eau Claire, UW-Madison and the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, have been awarded a more than $40,000 grant by the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin to study microplastics in the St. Louis River Estuary and western Lake Superior.

Microplastics, microbeads and plastic fibers are being found in water worldwide. The tiny plastics attract toxins, are eaten by aquatic bugs and fish and make their way up the food web to the dinner plate and even the beer mug.

Wisconsin Public Radio in 2018 reported that researchers found microplastics in beer made with Great Lakes water and that the national park with the highest concentration of microplastics was the Apostle Islands. The Duluth News Tribune reported in 2019 that researchers from UW-Eau Claire had found tiny pieces of plastic in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

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Rios Mendoza has been researching the density of microplastics in the area since she came to UWS. Her team’s work to understand the sources, impacts and solutions to increased plastics in oceans and the Great Lakes gained international attention and was involved with legislation in Wisconsin that bans microbeads in the water, according to a news release.

The grant will help support Rios Mendoza and two undergraduate research assistants, as well as pay for project supplies and travel expenses from May 18, 2021, to June 30, 2022. During that time, the team will collect samples through a program titled “Microplastics; Sources, Fate, etc. in St. Louis River Estuary and Lake Superior.”

“Working with colleagues in different research fields made this project more robust,” Rios Mendoza said in the news release. “This multidisciplinary research project will contribute to training undergraduate students in freshwater education. I am seeing this as an opportunity to fill some knowledge gaps of microplastics and involve our students in this study area. This is an opportunity not just for me working with colleagues from UW-Madison and UW-Eau Claire, but also for my students who can have the same opportunity working with students from other UW campuses.”