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 From left, Kennedy Middle School eighth graders Alyssa Sonnenfeld, Emily Tolcer, Adelia Nasir and Ava Pittiglio have researched the level of microplastics in Lake St. Clair.

From left, Kennedy Middle School eighth graders Alyssa Sonnenfeld, Emily Tolcer, Adelia Nasir and Ava Pittiglio have researched the level of microplastics in Lake St. Clair.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske


Lake Shore Public Schools students work to protect the lake from microplastics

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published February 28, 2020

ST. CLAIR SHORES — A dropped water bottle here, a flyaway piece of plastic wrap there, a straw that slipped, unnoticed, off the table.

No big deal, right?

Wrong.

Four Lake Shore Public Schools students have spent the past several months sampling, measuring, investigating and experimenting with solutions to the problem of microplastics in the Great Lakes, including St. Clair Shores’ own watery neighbor, Lake St. Clair.

Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm, which the eighth graders at Kennedy Middle School discovered were in the sand and water of five different beaches along Lake St. Clair: Veterans Memorial Beach and Blossom Heath Beach in St. Clair Shores, Lake St. Clair Metropark Beach in Harrison Township, and beaches in Marine City and New Baltimore.

“Plastics you use every day don’t go away. They just keep getting smaller and smaller,” said Adelia Nasir.

She and three of her friends and classmates — Alyssa Sonnenfeld, Emily Tolcer and Ava Pittiglio — worked under the direction of science teacher Jann Tamer on a national STEM-based competition, eCYBERMISSION, sponsored by the U.S. Army. STEM stands for learning centered on science, technology, engineering and math.

“Our mission is to look at a community issue and to solve that issue using either engineering (or science),” Tamer said.

With Lake St. Clair practically visible down the street from their school on Masonic Boulevard, the girls gravitated toward a community issue plaguing the lake.

Assisted by a researcher from New York and guided by Tamer, the students learned how to test the samples of water and sand for the presence of microplastics using a Nile red dye, which illuminates the microplastic when viewed through a special lens.

“There was a problem when we put them in the petri dishes,” Sonnenfeld said. “The petri dishes are made of plastic, so they contaminated the results.”

The four students didn’t give up.

“We see failures as the opportunity to learn from them,” she said during the Feb. 24 Lake Shore Board of Education meeting where they presented their results.

Even with a 30% error rate, Tamer said that the students “got really good results,” although she said the results were actually “not so good (for the environment) because there was the presence of microplastics in all of the samples.”

As they sampled the beaches at Veterans Memorial and Blossom Heath, the quartet also discovered the presence of macroplastics in the sand, Tamer said, leading them to make a presentation to the St. Clair Shores Waterfront Environmental Committee with their findings. The committee donated $600 to have two signs constructed that were designed by Sonnenfeld, the so-called “artist of the group,” which will be placed at the beaches warning visitors about the dangers of pollution.

The students said they discovered the greatest amount of microplastics at Marine City, which they attributed to the fact that it’s located just south of the Sarnia wastewater plant, which empties into the St. Clair River.

Wastewater treatment plants don’t test for or remove microplastics from the water, the girls said, which led them to develop a solution for some of the pollution: a laundry filter.

Ten to 12 million microfibers are produced in just one load of laundry, Pittiglio said, so the group developed a cheap and easy-to-use filter for the washing machine and made a YouTube video with instructions on how viewers can make their own with some easy to find items. All of the students’ results, the video and more are on a website they created, pollution-police.weebly.com, and they also created an Instagram account for their Pollution Police group, pollution.police.

The team will be competing against other eighth graders in their region for the chance to compete at the national level of the eCYBERMISSION.

Tamer said that when the opportunity arose to compete, she thought she had the right students for the project. She had worked with the four on a project when they were in seventh grade.

“I thought, I’m going to have these girls for a full year, why don’t we do something with this and actually compete,” she said. “It was like an evolution of them moving from seventh to eighth grade with me.”

The students submitted their project Feb. 25 and different levels of judging will occur throughout the next several months, with national judging in June.

Call Staff Writer Kristyne E. Demske at (586) 498-1041.