New report: Microplastics found in 100 percent of tested Pennsylvania waterways

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Study investigated this form of plastic pollution at 53 rivers, lakes, and streams

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

Philadelphia — At 53 waterways tested across Pennsylvania, microplastic contamination was found in every spot, from Lake Erie, Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers and the Delaware River, according to a new report entitled Microplastics in Pennsylvania: a Survey of Waterways released Wednesday. The study was conducted by the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center using methodology developed by NOAA. 

The report provides new data on the presence of microplastics in water samples taken at many of Pennsylvania’s most popular rivers, lakes, and streams, from Lake Erie to the Delaware River. 

Samples from all 53 popular Pennsylvania waterways had at least one type of microplastic contamination. Microplastics are pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters in diameter, which is smaller than a grain of rice. 

A full list of waterways tested and the types of microplastics at each can be found in the report

“The results of this study should set off alarms for all Pennsylvanians who love our state’s rivers and streams,”  said Faran Savitz, Conservation Associate at the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. “The staggering amount of microplastics we found likely means that no river, lake, or stream is safe from this increasingly common contaminant.” 

Along with the help of concerned citizens and elected officials across Pennsylvania, PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center staff collected water samples as part of the citizen-science project to identify plastic pollution in their local waterways. 

The report’s findings were announced at a PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center virtual news conference with U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-5), State Reps. Tim Briggs (Montgomery County) and Perry Warren (Bucks County). Dr. David Velinsky, Vice President of Academy Science at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and Myrna Newman, the Executive Director of Allegheny CleanWays also spoke. 

Americans generate more than 35 million tons of plastic waste every year and less than 10 percent is recycled. The rest ends up as litter or gets sent to landfills or incinerators where it will release microplastics over time that can get carried by wind or rain into the environment. Microfibers, a type of plastic found in every waterway, come from textiles and are shed through normal wear and tear or routine machine washing, where they are then carried to waterways. It’s almost impossible for water treatment plants to filter these pollutants out. 

Representative Briggs, had this to say, “I want to thank PennEnvironment for showing another side of the threat plastic poses to the Commonwealth, and for being a leading partner in advocating for policies to stop the proliferation of plastic from the source by reducing unnecessary plastics like bags and foam.”

Results for each waterway and photos from sampling can be found in this map from the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. Locations are tagged at the approximate point where samples were taken. 

River clean-ups and conservation efforts help with more visible forms of litter and pollution, but the small size of microplastics makes it easy for them to travel from their source to waterways near and far, carrying contaminants and chemicals that work their way up the food chain through wildlife and humans alike. 

“If we don’t want plastic in our bodies or in the bodies of fish, whales or birds, we need to stop the millions of tons of plastic that continue entering into the environment every day, every year”, said Dr. Velinsky. “As this report illustrates, the small microscopic bits and pieces of plastic are present throughout our local environment and can pose an impact to wildlife and humans!”

The report outlines a broad range of policy solutions to tackle the problem. These include passing such federal bills as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which includes single-use plastic bans and producer responsibility provisions, and updating stormwater infrastructure to better capture rain and runoff laced with microplastics.

Myrna Newman added, “We remove about 4 tons of plastic from our riverfronts every year through our riverbank cleanups, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. While visible plastics are ugly along the riverfront, invisible microplastics – the plastics we can’t remove – also cause the harm to our waterways.”

“There is no silver bullet solution for the mini-menace of microplastics” said Savitz, “fundamentally, we need to cut plastic pollution off at the source and change the way society deals with our waste”.

A recording of the event can be viewed in its entirety on PennEnvironment’s Facebook page.

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center will also be hosting a virtual webinar to further discuss their findings with national microplastics expert Dr. Sam Mason on Thursday, March 4 at 6:00pm. RSVP here.


PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center is dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. For more information, visit