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Teen is an expert on microplastics
October 4, 2023

La Salle Academy Healthy News reporters recently interviewed a 17-year-old high school junior who created a robot to find microplastics in the ocean. Her name is Anna Du and she lives in Massachusetts.

What are microplastics? They are less than 5 millimeters wide—under a fifth of an inch—according to National Geographic magazine. Plastics can take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down and can end up inside sea animals and in drinking water. Scientists are researching what health risks they may pose to humans, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

The Healthy News reporters were curious to know how Ms. Du had become an expert in microplastics at such an early age. When she was about 11, she said, her family lived near the beach. It was practically in her backyard! She saw firsthand the damage pollution, especially plastics, had on the beach and sea life.

She said she was so concerned about saving sea animals, specifically sea turtles, that she began researching the effects of microplastics on animals. She spoke with oceanographers, studied oceanography in science class, and spoke with other experts to expand her knowledge.

Ms. Du said she decided to create her robot when she learned how big the problem of plastic pollution is. It affects the whole world, including the beaches near where she lives, she said.

Ms. Du named her robot The Nereid. A Nereid is a spirit that guards saltwater in Greek mythology. She thought the name was fitting because her invention seeks to “help make the saltwater safer for all the animals that might live there.”

The Nereid has a camera that can scan the ocean floor to spot where microplastics might be building up, Ms. Du said. Then people can “know exactly where the dirtiest parts of the ocean floor might be, so that we can concentrate all of our resources and cleanup efforts to those places.”

Ms. Du tested her robot many times in different parts of Boston Harbor to “make sure that I was able to predict where microplastics were located,” she said.

Because she learned so much along the way, she wrote a book for kids between 9 and 12. It’s called Microplastics and Me.

To cut down on plastics, Ms. Du said to pay careful attention to the food you eat, how it is packaged, and where you dispose of items made of plastics. Here are a few tips she shard:

  • Purchase foods that are not wrapped or stored in plastic. Instead, store food in paper.
  • Eat food that does not require packaging like fruits and vegetables.
  • Cut down on plastic containers and utensils.
  • Avoid plastic-covered cardboard.

To help cut down on plastic pollution, you can pick up plastic that you see on the ground—and make sure not to contribute to the problem by littering yourself.

There are also some shopping practices that can reduce the amount of plastic you use. For instance, she said, take your own reusable shopping bags when you shop.

If you must buy items wrapped in plastic, she said, be sure that the plastic is reusable, hard plastic. It can be washed, cleaned, and used again. Try using silverware instead of plastic utensils when ordering take-out food.

Besides learning all about microplastics, Ms. Du taught the Healthy News staff that no matter our age, we can learn about things that interest us and share our knowledge with others!

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Since 2003, Healthy NewsWorks has been empowering elementary and middle school students to become researchers, writers, and confident communicators who advance health understanding and literacy through their factual publications and digital media.