Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse

In Conversation with Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza

A couple of days before we started our journey, we sat down with Lorena Rios Mendoza to have a conversation about the state of microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Lorena is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Superior. Her career in researching plastic began in California in 2003. In the following years she visited and sampled from what is known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” which she described to us as “miles and miles and miles of garbage.” She sat us down and played us a video from her time of study there. She wasn’t exaggerating. The video showed an incomprehensible slurry of garbage, both large and tiny, floating just beneath the surface. 

Since we first reached out to her, Lorena has been an enthusiastic fan of our journey and a tireless voice in the raising of awareness around issues of plastic pollution. If she’s not busy teaching classes at UW-Superior she is hard at work on the Great Lakes furthering the depth of her research. She welcomed us into her office and lab to show photos, samples, and videos of her life’s work. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation we had with Lorena.


What’s the comparison between what you’re seeing in the ocean and in the Great Lakes?

In 2010 I moved from California to Wisconsin and I said “Hey, you have water here.” The lake is like an ocean, it is so huge! Then I decided to collect samples and I went with Sherri Mason with New York with Fredonia and the Five Gyres Institute from Long Beach. We went to collect in 2012 for the first time in the Great Lakes.

In the ocean you can see big fragments of the plastic and here in the [Great] Lakes you can find like whole plastic bottles, plastic bags. But the fragments are very small, very tiny, smaller than what I found in the ocean. Plastic is not biodegradable, it just has photodegradation which means the UV is hitting the plastic and making it harder and easier to break into small pieces…The plastic has electrostatic attraction and this is why you can find very small pieces together with a lot of different sizes.

How are these microplastics problematic as they move through the ecosystem?

Number one the plastic is a huge synthetic polymer that cannot interact with the cell membrane because the molecular weight is so huge. The people were thinking that this is inert and it’s ok. But now that this is in smaller sizes it can easily be confused for food. The plastic is floating, which means it is very close to the density of the water of the lake. This is what we found with polyethylene and polypropylene because the density is kind of the same. They are floating, they are mimicking the natural food and then the organisms eat it. This is one problem because they are eating fake food and there is no nutrition.

The second is that we found in 2004-2005 that plastic can absorb toxic compounds, persistent organic pollutants. And these toxic compounds can produce cancer and endocrine disruption and too many things. And then these are working like a sponge, cleaning and concentrating a very high concentration of these toxic compounds and when the fish eat it, this plastic with the toxic compounds, [they] can damage their system. The problem is in the fish, in the endocrine system of the fish, and when we eat it the problem is with us. But how are we cleaning the plastic from the lake? How can we say to the fish, “this is plastic, don’t eat it?”

You’ve said that plastic should really be classified as a hazardous waste. Can you speak more to that?

We need to start changing the behavior in the people, how they see the plastic. Because they have taken the plastic and later don’t see it disappear. But normally the people not living close to the ocean or the lake don’t see this problem. But if you’re living in California or Asia you can see that this is a huge problem. And what is another situation with this? The plastic is so cheap and then we have a problem that we use it just one time and the plastic ends up in the oceans. We have plastic bags in the groceries. People are thinking it’s mandatory to use it just because it’s free. But you know, it’s not free. We pay. It’s very expensive later. I think this is why we need to classify it like other really bad products. And in that way, if you start to put a price on the plastic, people will not keep using it the same way. The people use just one product, one plastic bag. But if they need to pay five cents or fifty cents, forget it, they won’t use it.

There are young people, like you, that say “how can we live without it?” I can understand it because you grew up with it. In my time was the transition between glass and plastic. There was resistance to the change. We said “no way, the plastic is so horrible.” But you can see now that the plastic looks just like glass. It’s so beautiful. I love it, honestly. You can find it in whatever shape you want and it is so useful. But it is bad.

As members of the Lake Superior Watershed, how can we move forward on this issue?

The most important thing moving forward is the communication, to tell to the people that the plastic is not my friend. We totally need to stop using plastic like we are using it now. In school they teach you the three R’s: Reuse, Recycle, Reduce, but I say we need to start with Refuse. What happens when you’re at Subway? You ask them for your sandwich and then what do they do? Automatically, they give you a plastic bag. And then you walk and sit at the table and how long do you use this plastic bag? Less than five minutes. And then you can find it in the ocean and it will stay longer than 40 years like that. Just for five minutes. We need to start changing this. For me, the key are the children because they will listen to you.

You know this Lake [Superior] is kind of clean. It’s the cleanest. As you know, Lake Erie is the worst. This is horrible. Lake Erie is shallow and surrounded by a lot of people this is why we found a high concentration of plastic. Here in Lake Superior we didn’t find a lot. However… we found it. And this is the problem. Plastic is everywhere. We need to be careful because we are using the water. We are eating what comes from the water. We’re drinking this water.