Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Environmental Sciences

First Advisor

Juanita Urban-Rich

Second Advisor

Ellen Douglas

Third Advisor

Robert F. Chen


Plastic pollution is a ‘wicked’ environmental problem that has resulted from the growing demand for plastic and its poor management as waste. The cumulative global production of plastic is estimated to have reached 10,000 million metric tons (Mt) by 2017. Over 7000 Mt became plastic waste, the majority being landfilled or littered. Plastic’s durability and resistance to natural processes results in extremely slow decomposition in the environment. Instead, plastic readily fragments into small pieces called microplastics. Microplastics (<5 mm) are found worldwide in ocean, freshwater, soil, and atmospheric systems. They present a risk because of chemical leaching, or by acting as a transport vector of heavy metals and chemicals that adsorb to the outside. Within an organism, microplastic can cause blockage, inflammation, or oxidative stress. Atmospheric microplastic is a major source of microplastics in humans due to the likelihood of inhalation. Atmospheric studies have also suggested long-range transport of microplastic to remote areas.

In this study, the seasonally-touristed island of Nantucket, MA was examined for atmospheric microplastics from October 2021 to September 2022 at two sites. Microplastics were present in every sample, with daily fluxes ranging from 5-62 mp/m2/d. Microplastic concentration was greatest during the tourist season, suggesting influences from increased human activity. Fibers were the most prevalent type (70%) of microplastic, similar to other atmospheric microplastic studies. The lowest length reached 76 µm, a size small enough to enter through the smallest bronchiole of the lung, suggesting that microplastic inhalation is a risk on Nantucket Island.

Society’s dependency on plastic will continue to exacerbate plastic pollution. To address the plastic problem, efforts should therefore focus on human behavior. Environmental education is one tool that spreads knowledge of environmental issues and raises awareness of behavioral impacts. When aimed at younger children, environmental education can promote environmentally friendly behaviors that are more likely to continue throughout adulthood. However, it is not always apparent if young children understand complex science topics. The second study looked at how art could be used to engage children aged 6-7 and help them to express their comprehension. Art was administered as a pre- and post-survey prior to and following a lesson on plastic pollution. Comparisons between pre- and post- artworks indicated that the children learned something new. 79% of children were engaged in creating both artworks. Children were also able to represent their own feelings and relationship toward plastic through the illustration of emotion. A framework was created to analyze the artworks that involved the artworks composition, the inclusion of semiology, and emotive expression.


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