A team from the University of Wisconsin-Superior is researching the COVID-19 pandemic's influence on microplastics pollution.

UWS senior Callie Lier and chemistry professor Lorena Rios Mendoza are tracking personal protective equipment (PPE) waste in Superior.

Disposable masks and gloves weren’t part of everyday life for people in the United States before COVID-19, Rios Mendoza said. Made of plastic, they can break down into microplastic particles that affect the environment.

“We have a huge problem with the microplastics, but still I was thinking people would be more careful with the masks because of the COVID situation,” the professor said.

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Since September, the pair have mapped more than 250 pieces of PPE waste in the city.

“It’s growing. Every time, Callie has more and more data. It’s not good,” Rios Mendoza said.

Lier said the majority have been disposable face masks in good condition, although a handful of gloves have been reported. The most PPE waste was found on the UWS campus with 56 items and in East End with 40. Spotters found 23 pieces at Superior Middle School, 19 in the Menards parking lot and three along the Millennium Trail.

Callie Lier, a senior at UW-Superior, walks with her dog as she looks for PPE waste on the UWS campus Tuesday, Dec. 15. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Callie Lier, a senior at UW-Superior, walks with her dog as she looks for PPE waste on the UWS campus Tuesday, Dec. 15. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Lier and her family track PPE waste they find, and she’s sent out requests for help over social media. The UWS team is seeking additional spotters to pinpoint waste sites.

To participate, people just need to keep an eye out for litter involving disposable masks and gloves; take a picture of the items; and send the picture, along with information on the date and place where the waste was found, to clier@uwsuper.edu.

Lier is also reaching out to local landfills to see how PPE waste is being handled.

Rios Mendoza has been studying microplastics pollution for 15 years. This project, however, focuses on macroplastics, larger plastic items that can crumble into smaller and smaller pieces if they’re left out in the elements.

Microplastics are building up on the ocean floor and in Great Lakes waters. In 2018, researchers at the University of Minnesota reported finding microplastics in 12 brands of beer made with water from the Great Lakes. The study also found plastics contamination in sea salt and tap water from around the world, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

The problem with microplastics is that everything floating in the water is food, Rios Mendoza said. Toxic compounds build up on microplastics, which are ingested by fish, which in turn are eaten by people.

National Geographic’s Laura Parker summed up the problem in a Aug. 7 headline: “Microplastics have moved into virtually every crevice on Earth.”

A pair of masks lay on the curb near Menards in Superior recently. Callie Lier, a senior at UWS, is collecting data on PPE waste found in the city. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
A pair of masks lay on the curb near Menards in Superior recently. Callie Lier, a senior at UWS, is collecting data on PPE waste found in the city. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Lier, an environmental science major, said she reached out to Rios Mendoza this summer after reading about a microplastics research grant the university received. When she asked if she could be part of the study in some way, they launched the PPE project.

“I think it’s been a wonderful opportunity to be able to participate in this research,” Lier said. “I’m also passionate about our environment, and plastic is part of the problem that we have with our environment, so I’m really grateful that I’m able to be part of the solution of trying to figure out our plastic problem.”

Moving away from using plastic is a good way to do that, said Lier, a 2018 Northwestern High School graduate. She advocated using reusable items like masks and grocery bags and seeking out recycled products.

"I feel if people start making the environment more of a priority and companies see people are buying an environmentally friendly thing over something else, then the companies will get on board," Lier said.

Community members should remember that everything they throw away along city streets and sidewalks eventually lands in Lake Superior, Rios Mendoza said.

After this semester, the pair may share their data with the community to raise awareness. They expect to be tracking PPE waste for months, even during winter break.

"No break for us," Rios Mendoza said with a smile.