4 Nov 2019 - In 2014 biologist John Weinstein and his graduate students went looking for microplastics—the small bits of degraded plastic that researchers have discovered are spread throughout the environment.
The team was based at The Citadel military college in Charleston, South Carolina, where Weinstein is a professor. Working in a coastal city, they expected to find at least some evidence of microplastics, which are swept into the ocean. And sure enough, samples kept turning up.
Much of what they collected came from anticipated, identifiable sources, such as broken-down plastic bags. But more than half of the pieces were black, tubular, and microscopic, with no obvious origins.
“They’re elongated, almost like cigars,” says Weinstein. “It was a mystery.”
Weinstein and his students looked around the Charleston harbor at common black plastic items—such as fishing nets—searching for a comparison. But there weren’t any matches. The breakthrough came when they found very similar cigar-shaped plastics in a waterway right off of a main road. Then it dawned on them what they were dealing with: tiny bits of car tires.
“It was a surprise,” says Weinstein. “Usually you don't find what you're not looking for.”