Accomplished plastics pollution researcher joins Penn State Behrend

Steve Orbanek
July 25, 2019

ERIE, Pa. — Sherri “Sam” Mason is very much an optimist, and she brings lofty goals to the role of sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend. But she’s also a realist.

“Ideally, I think it would be great if we would get to a point where we have no more bottled water on campus and were all using reusable bottles, but I know that’s not likely to happen,” Mason said.

She paused.

“At least not right away,” she added with a smile.

Mason, who joined the college at the start of the spring 2019 semester, takes exception to bottled water for good reason: The Texas native is known for her groundbreaking research on plastics pollution. In one study, she tested bottled water that came from nine countries and was sold under 11 different brands. Plastic turned up in 93 out of every 100 bottles tested.

In another study, Mason recorded the plastic content of Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Superior and discovered that Lake Erie had higher concentrations of microplastics than any other body of water on Earth. Concentrations exceeded what had been collected in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“That research really was important because that was the point where plastics pollution went from being an ocean problem to a Great Lakes problem and then a world problem,” Mason said. “I remember I was at a conference at the time that my research study was released, and someone from the United Nations came to me and said, ‘I wanted to find you and thank you. Your work has been critical in pushing this along and making plastics pollution a world issue.’ That meant so much to me.”

Mason’s work with plastics pollution aligns with her larger goals revolving around sustainability. At her previous institution, the State University of New York at Fredonia, Mason founded a sustainability committee and worked to put together a Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS) report for the school.

She now hopes to do the same for Behrend.

“That will be really key because it will give us our baseline,” Mason said. “We’ll know what we’re good at, and we’ll also know all the areas in which we need to improve.”

Her appointment as sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend is part of the University’s sustainability initiatives. Penn State is currently working to implement the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across the University’s 24 campuses. Part of Mason’s job will be implementing the SDGs at Behrend.

In her role, Mason will oversee many of the sustainability initiatives already in place at the college, including the Lion’s Pantry, the Sustainable Food Systems Program, Trash to Treasure, Green2Go Box, and the Waste Not food-donation program. She’s already planning for the future, too.

In addition to completing the STARS report, Mason wants to form a campus sustainability committee and hopes to join the Bee Campus USA program next year. She also will continue to conduct plastics research and plans to collaborate with faculty members in Behrend’s Plastics Engineering Technology (PLET) program, which is one of only four accredited plastics engineering technology programs in the United States.

“What’s really exciting is that (PLET faculty members) understand the problem with plastics pollution, and they want to be part of the solution,” Mason said. “They want to be at the forefront at educating about the problem and finding solutions. You know, I’m actually not anti-plastic. I think it’s an amazing material as it is so versatile and has so many great properties. We just need to continue to look at how we’re using it because it doesn’t make sense to make a product that lasts for minutes with a material that lasts for centuries.”

Ultimately, through her research and in her new role as sustainability coordinator, Mason hopes to further the conversation regarding sustainability.

“We’re really good at being unsustainable, so we need to educate folks on what sustainability is,” Mason said. “Here’s the thing to remember: Nature is really good at cleaning and taking care of itself. That’s why it has existed for so long. We’re the ones who really need to get better.”

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Last Updated September 20, 2019