Putting D.C.’s Wastewater Treatment to the Microplastics Test

Gregg Treinish and his team at Adventure Scientists bring us stories from around the world about adventuring with purpose. Georgetown University students and Adventure Scientists Carter Cortazzi, Jamie Farrell, and Lola Bushnell recently sampled the Potomac River in Washington D.C. for microplastics and here describe their experience. 

By Carter Cortazzi, Jamie Farrell, and Lola Bushnell

At 5 a.m. on a very dark and cold Halloween weekend morning, our crew of intrepid explorers assembled at Georgetown University’s front gates in Washington, D.C. Freshly awoken after very few hours of sleep and buried under about five layers of clothing (no fleeces, which shed tiny plastic fibers everywhere), we were itching to get out onto the Potomac River to help join the fight against microplastic pollution by collecting samples for Adventure Scientists.

Carter collecting water samples on the Potomac
Carter takes water samples from the Potomac at sunrise. Photo by Jamie Farrell

We reached our friend Noah’s skiff under the cover of darkness. Even the fish seemed to be asleep. Unfortunately, the bow lights on the boat were out, so we had a brief nap on the pontoon, but woke up again around 7 a.m. raring to go. The sunrise was incredible, and the crystal-clear, still water along with the incredible views of General’s Row, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol Building, made the whole boat trip feel like a scene from a film.

We had a few motivations for doing the water collection. Firstly, we wanted to measure the Blue Plains Treatment Plant’s efficacy at filtering out microplastics. Blue Plains, the largest advanced wastewater treatment plant in the world, is regarded as the best in America. We tested upstream and downstream from where the effluent from the plant is released, so the results will give us an idea of the ability of the plant to prevent the release of microplastics (such as the microfibers shed from fleece) into aquatic environments. If the plant does successfully capture microplastics, we will investigate further to find out how, and push for this modification to be implemented at other facilities.

water treatment plant on the Potomac
The juxtaposition of the industrial and natural worlds as Carter and Lola pose in front of the water treatment facility with the sun rising over the Potomac in the background. Photo by Jamie Farrell
Secondly, we wanted to discern the scale of the problem in our local, urban environment. As a team, we are currently prototyping and testing a product that will capture microfibers in the wash. Local evidence of the situation will motivate new audiences to address the problem. It is much harder to ignore a huge issue that is right at your backdoor. Hopefully we can educate people on the scale and nature of the problem as well as provide a product that reduces the expulsion of microplastics into our waterways.

Overall, the water testing was an unbelievable experience. Despite a few hiccups, like the bow light issue and the boat breaking down towards the end, it was fantastic fun. We were able to experience Washington, D.C. in a way we never could have imagined, but we also contributed to the scientific community in an under-researched urban environment. Hopefully the results come back without any microfibers present, but even if they do not, we look forward to conducting further research into why this is the case and continuing the fight against the microplastic scourge.

Group shot
Team photo with the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in the background. Pictured left to right: Jamie, Carter, Lola. Photo by Noah Martin

Carter Cortazzi, Jamie Farrell, and Lola Bushnell are a team from Georgetown University working to find solutions to microplastics pollution. They became involved with Adventure Scientists after developing an interest in the problem through a class they took which urged students to look for solutions to global challenges, and were motivated to act because of their passion for the environment. Carter studies Bioethics, Jamie is pursing a degree in Environmental Biology, and Lola studies Government and Environmental Studies.

Microscopic view of the red microplastic in their water sample.
Microscopic view of the red microplastic in their water sample.
Microscopic view of the blue microplastic fragment (looks like an opal in the image)
Microscopic view of the blue microplastic fragment (looks like an opal in the image).

Sample Results: Jamie, Lola, and Carter collected eight samples, which contained nine pieces of microplastic: one red fiber, two blue fibers, one blue fragment, and five black fibers. See these results and over 2500 others on the Adventure Scientists worldwide map.

Find out more about the Worldwide Microplastics Initiative and other Adventure Scientists projects by visiting their website, and by following them on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at adventurescientists.org/field-notes. Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.