AHS students take samples to study plastic pollution

ALPENA – Alpena High School chemistry students spent part of their day Wednesday on Lady Michigan to do pollution testing in Lake Huron. The students were using a trawl net to collect plastics and other debris from the surface and just below the surface of the water.

“The project is possible by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a Bay Watershed Education and Training grant which incorporates learning and doing something valuable for the community,” B-WET representative Harriet Smith said. “Humans consume tons of plastic every day and plastics are abundant. As the plastic degrades, it’s can be invisible to the naked eye, but it’s still there. It’s a worldwide issue.”

Prior to the trip on Lake Huron, students had been learning about marine debris and plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean, often called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the issue of plastic pollution facing the Great Lakes. They have studied the chemistry of plastics and polymers and are conducting an eight-week experiment in the classroom looking at various types of marine debris and degradation processes of different materials.

Chemistry teacher Melissa Smith has been guiding her class through a study about pollution and will be sharing the data her classes collect with Dr. Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor at Fredonia State University in Syracuse, N.Y., who also has been working in the Great Lakes doing plastic pollution studies.

“Dr. Mason has been working with ocean research for two or three years in the Great Lakes collecting samples,” Smith said. “She was in the Alpena area earlier testing the plastics pollution, and we’ll share the data we collect this trip to add to her studies.”

In order to collect the plastic pollution, the Lady Michigan had to maintain 2.5 knots for 30 minutes for each session of collection. The trawl net was pulled behind and to the side of the boat twice; once in the mouth of the Thunder Bay River, and once in the open waters of Thunder Bay.

“We’ll take the samples we’ve collected and pull out our microscopes to see what we can find,” Smith said. “We’ll also be checking our water samples from the different sites to see if there are any differences or pollution in those.”

For each sample, student groups recorded the latitude, longitude and monitored the time it took to collect the data, and will compare the different samples in the classroom, then share what they’ve learned with the community.

“NOAA’s B-WET program and the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative are all about place-based water education,” MSU Sea Grant Extension educator Brandon Schroeder said. “They take data back to the classroom and present their findings to the community in presentations or posters or other outreach techniques.”

The students participating in Wednesday’s trip will compare and analyze the samples, try to determine where the pollution is coming from, and figure out what they can do to improve the pollution and inform the community about pollution prevention.