A Brief Dive into Microplastics

By Jack Mercik, Office and Communications Coordinator

At Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, we are committed to building a better future for Lake Champlain through history, archaeology, and ecology. A key part of that is understanding the health of our lake and what we can all do to help mitigate or even fight threats. This year, we’ve been talking a lot about microplastics, the threat they pose to Lake Champlain and our whole ecosystem, and what we at the Museum are doing to take action.

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5 millimeters in size, and can be found in different forms from a variety of plastic sources. They may be foam from coffee cups, fiber from fleece clothing or plastic ropes, fragments from large plastic objects like floating dock barrels, or films from plastic bags and wrappings.

What do they do?

Once they enter the water system, microplastics can be eaten by fish or other wildlife, which can block digestion systems, alter feeding behavior, or affect reproductive and overall health. In Lake Champlain, fibers and fragments are the most common plastic ingested by bird and fish species. Plastic levels increase as you move up the food chain, with the highest levels being found in predators such as cormorants, bowfin, and lake trout, which consume prey who have already ingested microplastics. Microplastics also attract harmful chemicals and heavy metals, which pose a threat to animals and humans alike as they enter our food chain.

An infographic showing an overview of micro and nanoplastic sources and routes of contamination in the food chain
An overview of micro- and nanoplastic contamination in the food chain. Taylor & Francis. Toussaint, Brigitte; Raffael, Barbara; Angers-Loustau, Alexandre; Gilliland, Douglas; Kestens, Vikram; Petrillo, Mauro; et al.

Taking action

So what are we doing here at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum? Well in recent years we had noticed small particles of blue plastic in our regular ecological surveys of North Harbor, and after some investigation we were able to trace the source to the blue plastic barrels which served as flotation devices for our dock systems.

So, to decrease microplastic pollution in our lake, Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has replaced these blue plastic floating docks. After months of research into materials science, including contacting leading plastic dock flotation manufacturers, the Museum selected a new dock flotation system that meets high standards of sustainability and longevity. Our new dock system is designed specifically to serve as a sustainable and more environmentally friendly aquatic installation, and should create less microplastics than the old one. Additionally, since it is designed with longevity in mind it will not need to be replaced for some time, further cutting down on potential microplastic generation in North Harbor.

This project has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement (LC – 00A006950) to NEIWPCC in partnership with the Lake Champlain Basin Program.