KINGSTON, RI – The United States has made real progress in reducing pollution and cleaning up waterways.  But the proliferation of plastics pollution, while largely invisible to the human eye, is becoming alarmingly worse.

Microplastics and nanoplastics -- tiny polymer fragments -- are turning up everywhere: in waterways, fish, birds, wildlife, and in people.  Plastic is the number one type of trash found at sea and one of the most urgent environmental and health challenges of our time.  According to the Associated Press: “Half the plastic that has ever existed on Earth was made in the last 20 years. Only 9 percent of the plastic sold every year in the United States is recycled, according to the U.S. EPA. Up to 13 million metric tons of it ends up in the world’s oceans each year the equivalent of a garbage truck-full being dumped into the sea every minute where it kills fish, birds, sea turtles, whales and dolphins that eat it or become entangled by it.”

Not all plastic that ends up in the ocean comes from plastic bags or water bottles.  Tiny plastic fragments, primarily from clothing and textiles, get released from washing machines and then into wastewater treatment plants.  These fragments and films come from the breakdown of larger, harder plastics, as well as from things like flexible plastic packaging and other discarded plastic that finds its way into waterways through storm-water systems.

Now, researchers at the University of Rhode Island (URI) are getting a $1 million boost to better understand the flow of plastic particles through the environment and develop new solutions to stop plastic waste and pollution.

Today, U.S. Senator Jack Reed and Congressman Jim Langevin joined URI President Marc B. Parlange and faculty members and students to announce a $1 million federal earmark for URI to increase the understanding of the impact plastics have on human and environmental health and coastal ecosystems and develop new sustainable materials and advance innovation in recycling and pollutant capture.

The lawmakers say that URI’s promising, evidence-based research is critical to raising awareness, increasing scientific understanding, and helping lawmakers develop effective policies to tackle marine plastics and stem the tide of plastics pollution.

“In the grand scheme of things, microplastics are a relatively new pollutant and there is a lot we still don’t know, which is one of the reasons URI’s research is so important.  We do know plastics pollution is becoming more pervasive and poses a serious environmental threat and public health problem.  Microplastics are increasingly present in the clothes we wear, the water we drink, and the food chain as well.  Getting plastic pollution out of our waters and off the menu requires a sea change in the ways that individuals, businesses, and society treat the use and ownership of plastics throughout the entire life cycle of these products, from packaging to clothes to single use items.  URI is developing promising strategies to turn the tide on plastic waste and marine pollution.  This federal earmark will help expand their reach and URI’s findings and recommendations will help form future actions to improve water quality and reduce pollution,” said Senator Jack Reed.

“Unchecked plastics pollution is a threat to our health, our environment, and our economy, which is why I am so proud that URI has decided to step up to the plate and tackle this challenge head-on,” said Rep. Jim Langevin. “It’s an honor to partner with URI on reducing plastics pollution by delivering this $1 million federal investment to support URI’s cutting-edge plastics research program.”

“With the support of Senator Reed and Congressman Langevin, this $1 million earmark demonstrates that an investment in the University of Rhode Island is truly an investment in the state and its people. As the public flagship research institution, URI is conducting important research in all areas of the Blue Economy, including this plastics pollution initiative, which is improving the lives of Rhode Islanders and fueling economic growth for the state. This November, with the help of voters, we have an opportunity to continue to fuel this growth through a $100 million bond referendum, which will start the transformation of URI’s Narragansett Bay Campus as we build a more prosperous and sustainable Blue Economy,” said URI President Marc B. Parlange.

To help confront plastic pollution, URI launched Plastics: Land to Sea, a web-based research network to communicate, collaborate, and accelerate ideas and strategies that inform society, public policy, & reduce land-to-sea plastic pollutants.  “Plastics: Land to Sea” initiative is a “co-laboratory” or laboratory without walls that now involves nearly 50 faculty at URI, across most all of it colleges, and in partnership with state agencies (RIDEM, RIDOT), with non-profit partners and NGOs, and with universities internationally.

This new federal earmark, which Senator Reed and Congressman Langevin jointly secured for URI in the fiscal year 2022 appropriations law, will be used to support research projects and initiatives focused on reducing plastic pollution locally, statewide, and on a national and global scale. The federal funding will also support outreach and partnership with industry on new, more sustainable materials or plastic substitutes.

In 2015, Senator Reed and Congressman Langevin helped pass a law to ban companies from making and selling personal care products that contain microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic that were used as exfoliates in cosmetic consumer products.

This month, California became the first state in the nation to begin requiring water agencies to test for the microplastic contaminants.