Environment in the news

Detroit confronting an infrastructure challenge

By Ari Shapiro  Before the month is up, the House is expected to vote on the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. There's funding to improve the electrical grid, provide internet access for rural areas and much more. And the widespread need for these funds is already clear and present. Each day this week, we will hear from people and communities who are experiencing the frequent, if not daily, obstacles of failing infrastructure that this bill hopes to address. Our co-host Ari Shapiro starts our coverage in Detroit, Mich., where the city is confronting a challenge that will only get worse as the planet keeps heating up. ARI SHAPIRO: The sentiment goes beyond just the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. Professor Carol Miller of Wayne State University in Detroit has been studying water infrastructure for decades, and she tells me people used to ask her about contaminants, whether the local fish they caught were safe to eat. But these days... CAROL MILLER: The questions that are being asked at dinners and out with friends is a - questions relating to flooding - like, why is this happening? Why is it that disadvantaged people in the city have to go into their basements several times a year to pump out, or pail out, sewage that has gathered in the basement from a storm?SHAPIRO: And when somebody at that dinner party says - so is this big infrastructure bill going to make a difference? - what do you tell them? MILLER: I would tell them it should, that there's tons of money that look like it's going to be heading in that direction - so it should. I'd say it all depends on the people that are making those decisions. 
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Product developed by Wayne State professor touted to be safer for marine life

After spending weeks and months in the water, the bottom of a boat can become a slimy mess, as algae and other marine organisms coat the hull. Biofouling, the accumulation of algae, barnacles and other marine organisms on underwater surfaces like the hulls of boats and ships, can slow down vessels and increase fuel consumption by as much as 40%, at a cost of $36 billion for the global shipping industry. It costs recreational boaters more in fuel, as well, because of the drag added to the boat. That’s why many boaters — recreational owners and commercial shippers — use a bottom paint containing an anti-foulant. More than 90% of current anti-foulants in the market rely on copper as a biocide, however. The heavy metal is designed to leach out of the paint while it is in the water, creating a toxic environment to deter wildlife from attaching to the hull, but it is also an endocrine disrupter that affects the life cycles of fish, according to Sheu-Jane Gallagher, one of the three co-founders and general manager of Repela Tech, a startup out of Wayne State University. A new technology developed in a lab at Wayne State University is being used in an attempt to change that, however. “Repela is all about sustainability, and what we are developing is a sustainable technology for boaters,” Gallagher said. Zhiqiang Cao, Ph.D., a professor of chemical engineering and materials science in Wayne State University’s College of Engineering, invented the underlying technology for the product and approached Gallagher and Edward Kim, the third co-founder of the company, about promoting and marketing marine applications for the technology.
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Historic floods fuel misery, rage in Detroit

City officials have repeatedly pointed to climate change as the main culprit in last month’s flood, when Detroit was overwhelmed by as much as 8 inches of rain in less than 19 hours. Weather stations in and around Detroit set records for the most amount of rainfall within a 24-hour period during the storm, according to the National Weather Service. Thousands of basements were flooded, causing widespread damage and prompting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency. The White House has since issued a disaster declaration, freeing up federal funds. The storms offer a foreboding glimpse of Detroit’s new reality in a warming world: flooding intensified by high water levels on Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. And the floods have also churned up debate about the management of Detroit’s aging flood-control system and whether officials are taking steps to harden the system against what’s becoming a regular drumbeat of record-setting storms. Lyke Thompson, a professor of political science and director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, agreed. “The people in the city that are better off live in neighborhoods that have better infrastructure for removing the water from the neighborhood,” Thompson said. “And whites left the city in droves decades ago, so most of the city of Detroit is occupied by people of color. So, if the city has a problem, they have a problem. And the city has a problem.” Detroit’s outer suburbs, he said, are on higher ground with newer infrastructure, while lower-lying neighborhoods experience flooding and leaks on a regular basis. Those same houses, he said, are getting “whammy after whammy because we’re having repeated 100-year floods, and the residents can’t cope with it.” Thompson and other researchers have documented those trends in a study that found recurrent residential flooding in Detroit is far more prevalent than previously thought, disproportionately affects Black residents and may contribute to a greater incidence of asthma. Of the 6,000 homes in Detroit surveyed, researchers found almost 43% had experienced flooding, and neighborhoods like Jefferson Chalmers are especially vulnerable.
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Great Lakes algae threaten air quality

Toxins from harmful algal blooms, such as those looming in Lake Erie off Monroe County shores, are well-known as water polluters, but now researchers are looking at how they harm Great Lakes air. And that could have implications for human health, they say. Algae blooms occur because of a warming climate and nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from activities like agriculture, said Judy Westrick, a chemistry professor at Wayne State University. In the Great Lakes region, algal blooms occur in inland lakes and the western basin of Lake Erie, primarily in shallow water, Westrick said. Research focuses on water quality because of observations, Westrick said. When people became sick after swimming in toxic water, scientists began researching it. However, now that water quality is better understood, scientists are branching out into understanding algae toxins and air, Westrick said. “You’re probably going to see, in probably the next year, like 100 studies on aerosol,” Westrick said. “Aerosol has become a big thing because of a couple of factors.” Those factors are part of climate change, she said. For example, heavy rainfall can cause waves and break up harmful algae, releasing particles that could be toxic in the air. The expert consensus is algae blooms will get worse as climate change and runoff worsen, Westrick said. Algae essentially eat nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from agricultural runoff. “If you take care of the nutrients and you don’t have the nutrient load, then then they won’t get worse, but if everything stayed the same, the nutrient load, and it just gets warmer, we expect them to go longer,” Westrick said.
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Researchers study how algal bloom toxins may harm Great Lakes air

Toxins from harmful algal blooms are well-known as water polluters, but now researchers are looking at how they harm Great Lakes air. Algae blooms occur because of a warming climate and nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from activities like agriculture, said Judy Westrick, a chemistry professor at Wayne State University. In the Great Lakes region, algal blooms occur in inland lakes and the western basin of Lake Erie, primarily in shallow water, Westrick said. Research focuses on water quality because of observations, she said. When people became sick after swimming in toxic water, scientists began researching it. However, now that water quality is better understood, scientists are branching out into understanding algae toxins and air, Westrick said. “You’re probably going to see, in probably the next year, like 100 studies on aerosol. Aerosol has become a big thing because of a couple of factors.” The factors are part of climate change, she said. For example, heavy rainfall can cause waves and break up harmful algae, releasing particles that could be toxic in the air. The expert consensus is algae blooms will get worse as climate change and runoff worsen, Westrick said. Algae essentially eat nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from agricultural runoff. “If you take care of the nutrients and you don’t have the nutrient load, then then they won’t get worse, but if everything stayed the same, the nutrient load, and it just gets warmer, we expect them to go longer,” Westrick said.
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It's deja vu all over again for metro Detroit flood victims despite past promises

Repeated flooding has plagued homeowners in cities across the region in recent years, with Detroit, the Grosse Pointes and Dearborn getting hit hardest in last weekend's latest round. After each event, government officials offer similar reasonings for the breakdowns: historic rainfall stressed aging infrastructure beyond its capacity. Investigations are launched, lawsuits filed and promises are made. But this time some are hopeful it’s a wake-up call that will force solutions that stick. "Everybody is exhausted," said William Shuster, chair of Wayne State University's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and an expert in storm and wastewater management who himself lost a vehicle to the weekend flooding. "This is an equal opportunity disruptor, destroyer of health, property and morale." Shuster said the extreme rainfall was exacerbated by already saturated soil Friday night. In southeastern Michigan, combined sewer systems are the norm, which means storm runoff combines with sewage, often overwhelming water treatment facilities in periods of heavy rain. "It’s hard to tell if the (all) pumps were operating if it would have made a difference," Shuster said. "What we have are unpredictable rainfall events and this converges with undersized infrastructure. That’s why it’s so pronounced."
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Flooding has become all too common in Southeast Michigan, but aging infrastructure remains the same

Across Southeast Michigan, communities are reeling from the destruction caused by severe storms over the weekend. Images of flooded basements and cars submerged in water under freeway underpasses served as a reminder of Detroit’s poorly adapted infrastructure to increased instances of environmental disasters. Bill Shuster is professor and chair of the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Wayne State University. He says the storms that devastated Southeast Michigan over the weekend become more of a threat each year, but the aging infrastructure remains the same. “The burden just keeps getting larger and larger each time. It’s really about social and political will to make sure resources are available.” Shuster says fixing the state’s water infrastructure is doable from an engineering standpoint, but dependent on the resources given to communities by the government. “For any type of engineering design, we need the appropriate data to do this. This is not impossible, it’s not rocket science.” Shuster says improving infrastructure equitably in Southeast Michigan takes comprehension of its communities, and, “the way that we understand how water runs through American communities … so that we can then design the sustainability and resilience.” He says responding to climate change in infrastructure will take every aspect of environmental engineering, while arguably pulling in social work as well. “We’re training engineers for the future to take on these issues and we’re in the position of we need to pull together investment, infrastructure dollars that are guided by good data that’s translated by good contemporary engineering practice.”
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Here's what metro Detroit residents dealing with the flood aftermath should know

Detroit was inundated with flooding this weekend and many are still recovering from the aftermath. Roads were flooded, cars were abandoned on freeways and basements were damaged — leaving residents devastated by what was lost and cannot be replaced. Your basement is flooded. Now what? First things first, local and statewide agencies have made it clear that residents should stay out of flood water, both in the streets and inside their houses. It can contain dangerous bacteria, sewage, oils and debris. If you do come in contact with it, make sure to wash up after, according to MDHHS. Be careful when inspecting the damage in your basement. Wear rubber boots that are only dedicated to flood cleanup when entering the water to avoid spreading bacteria, said Carol Miller, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University. "Unfortunately there are many people with recurrent flooding," she said. "If you've had flooding, it's likely going to happen again and the best thing to do is to have a special set of rubber boots that you keep near the basement and you only use it when you're exposed to that floodwater." Power outages during flooding results in an increase in exposure to carbon monoxide,  an odorless, colorless and deadly gas. The CDC and Michigan Poison Center are warning people to never turn on generators, pressure washers or other gasoline, propane, natural gas, wood or charcoal devices inside your home or near an open window or door, as they produce hazardous levels of carbon monoxide. "People exposed to carbon monoxide may feel as if they have a cold or the flu," stated the warning issued by the Michigan Poison Center at the Wayne State University School of Medicine. "Flooding shouldn't be occurring in the first place and as an engineer, I would certainly be the first to say that there are engineering approaches that, when used in a sound fashion, can prevent this sort of flooding," Miller said. Multiple options are explored in detail in a recent study conducted by Wayne State University and the University of Michigan on household flooding in Detroit. Miller added that residents affected should develop a community or network of homeowners or renters in the area to pressure local government to "pay attention to these infrastructure problems."
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Is winter miserable for wildlife

Bridget B. Baker, clinical veterinarian and deputy director of the Warrior Aquatic, Translational, and Environmental Research (WATER) Lab at Wayne State University, wrote an earlier article for The Conversation which has been republished by Yahoo News. “While the weather outside may indeed get frightful this winter, a parka, knit hat, wool socks, insulated boots and maybe a roaring fire make things bearable for people who live in cold climates. But what about all the wildlife out there? Won’t they be freezing? Anyone who’s walked their dog when temperatures are frigid knows that canines will shiver and favor a cold paw – which partly explains the boom in the pet clothing industry. But chipmunks and cardinals don’t get fashionable coats or booties. In fact, wildlife can succumb to frostbite and hypothermia, just like people and pets. In the northern United States, the unfurred tails of opossums are a common casualty of cold exposure. Every so often an unusual cold snap in Florida results in iguanas falling from trees and manatees dying from cold stress. Avoiding the cold is important for preserving life or limb (or, in the opossum’s case, tail) and the opportunity to reproduce. 
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Former prosecutor and journalist weigh in on the significance of Flint water crisis charges

Noah Hall, a professor of law at Wayne State University, served as special assistant attorney general for the initial investigation of state officials regarding the water crisis. He said he felt the investigation he was part of had made promising progress in court, so when Nessel’s team announced they would shut down existing cases and start anew, he was frustrated and skeptical. But now, he says, he knows he was wrong. “It looks today like my skepticism was not justified and Attorney General Nessel came through on what she promised, which was, when she shut down our investigation and terminated us — myself included — she really was building back a better investigation that was going to do more work and go even further with developing charges. And it looks like that’s exactly what’s happened over the past two years,” Hall said. Snyder faces two misdemeanor charges of willful neglect of duty, for which he has pleaded not guilty. But other former officials face more serious charges, including former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Nick Lyon and the state’s former Chief Medical Officer Dr. Eden Wells, who have both been charged with nine felony counts of involuntary manslaughter. Hall says these new charges likely draw on decisions the Snyder Administration made back in 2012 and 2013, which set in motion the changes in Flint’s water supply that led to use of the Flint River with a lack of corrosion control. Some critics of the recent charges argue that government leaders and public servants, due to the nature of their jobs, should be permitted some benefit of the doubt, as they may have been using their best judgment to make decisions with the information that was available to them at the time. But Hall says that’s not what he thinks happened in the Flint water crisis, based on his knowledge from the initial investigation. “This was not a simple case of government officials doing the best they could and making a mistake. Quite the opposite,” he said. “These were government officials who intended to advance an agenda, and in advancing that agenda, threatened and ultimately harmed human life.”
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Wayne State, UD-Mercy to host environmental design conference

Wayne State University and the University of Detroit Mercy will co-host the Environmental Design Research Association’s 52nd annual conference May 19-23. Experts from around the world will explore how research, design and relationships between people and environments contribute to the creation of justice. Delivered in a virtual format, EDRA52 will bring together professionals from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds to examine topics surrounding the conference’s theme of just environments. The global conference features multiple keynote and plenary sessions, social and networking events, educational sessions, workshops and award ceremonies, as well as scholarship opportunities for students. EDRA52’s theme of just environments was developed in December 2019 by faculty from Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture and Wayne State’s College of Engineering. “Attendees will learn that there is great collaboration among the Detroit urban universities, community groups, nonprofits and government organizations,” said Carol Miller, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of Healthy Urban Waters at Wayne State: Miller said she believes EDRA52 will appeal to individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, beliefs and disciplines. “EDRA52 Detroit covers technical issues from engineering and science, as well as humanistic issues from psychology, communication and other research areas,” Miller said. “People generally enjoy expanding their range of colleagues and learning from others.”
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Most of Michigan's 24,000 contaminated sites await cleanup that might never come

Michigan environmental law assigns responsibility for contamination not to the owners of the land, but to those who caused the pollution, however long ago, provided current property owners take some protective steps. Some 14,000 of the state's contaminated sites have no responsible party that can be identified — either it's unclear who caused it or those responsible no longer are around. That means the sites will fall to Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EGLE or the EPA — taxpayers — to deal with as needed. And that number isn't likely to get reduced much anytime soon. Of those 14,000 sites, EGLE this year funded remediation activities at about 450. "Something is broken" in how Michigan handles its contaminated lands, said Carol Miller, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University, a co-director of the university's Center for Leadership in Environmental Awareness and Research, or CLEAR. "There are more contaminated sites being left open than should be the case. The problem is dollars, and the problem is many, if not all, of these sites are legacy sites. Regulations against use of the sites, that doesn't solve the problem."

EPA awards $50,000 to student teams in Michigan for innovative technology projects

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  announced $50,000 in funding to two student teams in Michigan through its People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) grants program. The teams from University of Michigan and Wayne State University will receive funding to develop and demonstrate projects that help address environmental and public health challenges. The Phase I teams will receive grants of up to $25,000 each which serve as their proof of concept. Across the nation, this year's winners are addressing a variety of research topics including efforts to reduce microplastics waste and food waste, creating innovative and solar-driven nanomaterials, building a stand-alone water treatment system that can provide potable water for indoor use in single family homes, and removing PFAS from water using liquid extractions. These teams are also eligible to compete for a Phase II grant of up to $100,000 to further implement their design in a real-world setting. A student team from Wayne State University will research how green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) affects urban groundwater quality and flow by piloting a network of community-based groundwater monitoring stations surrounding GSI sites in Detroit.
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Go green: local communities’ sustainability efforts

Wayne State University’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Daryl Pierson, thinks that bringing students together who are studying different subjects, and faculty who are in different areas, to form a multidisciplinary approach about sustainability is important. “You can't really just look at it from one side in order to get something that's truly sustainable,” he said. Pierson said that those who think things are moving too slowly need to be patient and not get frustrated, but continue to share the message of efficiency and the benefits of its work. It will ultimately lead to a big difference all around. Ashley Flintoff, director of planning and space management at WSU, said there’s also interdisciplinary sharing with students, who bring in fresh ideas and teach them while also being taught. Collaboration is vital to sustainability moving forward. Flintoff hopes that sustainability is able to get woven into the everyday vernacular and become less of a thing where people toot their horn about and have banners every time they achieve something with sustainability. "You just work it into your everyday life so that eventually the goal is that everything that you do has the sustainability aspect to it,” she said. “You don't have to think about it, you just do it. It just becomes kind of normal.”

How a massive fatberg went from sewer to science museum

Tracie Baker wasn’t sure what tools she would need for the dissection. Baker, an environmental toxicologist at Wayne State University, studies the presence and effects of toxins and endocrine-disrupting compounds in water. She’d cut up fish before, but never anything quite like the tangled mess of fats, oils, grease, and trash that had arrived in her lab. It was two 10-pound chunks of fatberg, taken from a massive sewer-clogging bolus. Baker figured she’d need gloves, probably the thick rubber kind people use for washing dishes, and elbow-length seemed safest. Beyond that, she says, “We weren’t exactly sure what was going to work.” Baker and her colleagues were trying to learn as much as they could about the fatberg, which had been hauled from a sewer in Clinton Township, a suburban Michigan community about 25 miles northeast of Detroit in Macomb County, while it was still fetid and fairly fresh. When they were done, it would be enshrined in a new exhibit at the Michigan Science Center. Pieces of the fatberg were worth keeping around for analysis because “so few fatbergs have been characterized,” Baker says. With the exception of a handful extracted in London, studied with gas chromatography or forensically prodded in front of television cameras, the usual approach to them is, “Let’s get this out of here, throw it in the trash, and move on,” Baker says. Along with her Wayne State colleague Carol Miller, a civil and environmental engineer, Baker applied for National Science Foundation funding to take a closer look at the Macomb County fatberg. The team wanted to know exactly what the mess was made of and how it might affect the ecosystem both inside and outside of the sewer.
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Why native fish matter

The fish populations of the Great Lakes have changed dramatically in the years since invasive species first arrived. Bloodsucking sea lampreys have decimated native lake trout, and tiny alewives have feasted on the eggs and young of trout and other native species. But there’s good news too, as researchers roll out solutions to help manage invasive fish populations and maintain the diversity of species. Donna Kashian, SciFri Book Club reader and biology professor at Wayne State University said, “I have so many wonderful memories of the Great Lakes, both as a child whose parents had a cabin near Lake Michigan and as an adult doing research on the lakes. But one in particular stands out. I was doing research on Lake Huron, I don’t even remember what we were looking at on that particular day. It was late in the season, maybe August. We were in the middle of the lake—flat water, clear blue skies—and monarch butterflies were just flying everywhere. We’re in the middle of their migration south. It was so surreal and beautiful. I knew birds use the lake as a flyway in their migration, but I never knew monarchs did.
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Expert says 'quite a bit' of contamination left behind causing green ooze in Madison Heights

We’re getting a clearer picture of what’s causing the green ooze toxic contamination that is flowing from the closed Electro-Plating Services site in Madison Heights and onto I-696. State and federal officials have said rainwater and groundwater flowing through a vat in the basement caused Hexavalent Chromium to leak out. Bill Shuster takes it a step further telling 7 Action News, “This water is picking up the contaminants that are still in the soil there.” Shuster is the Chair of the Wayne State University Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. The EPA spent $1.4 million to do a massive cleanup inside the facility after the state shut it down in 2016. How much contamination was left behind? Shuster speculated, “We would have to look at the data and analyze what’s in the affluent. Well, the gut instinct there was quite a bit left in there.” Shuster says the green ooze is colored by a marker added to the cancer causing Hexavalent Chromium. And he says options to prevent trouble after the cleanup included excavating the vat, making sure it is not coming in contact with groundwater and he says, “I probably would have capped it, ensured that water wouldn’t be getting in from the top. Into the pit. I can’t criticize EPA or MEDQ EGLE but if I was in charge, these are the things I would be looking at.”
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Is winter miserable for wildlife?

Bridget B. Baker, clinical veterinarian and deputy director of the Warrior Aquatic, Translational, and Environmental Research (WATER) Lab at Wayne State, wrote a piece earlier this year for The Conversation regarding how wildlife adapt to winter weather. Wildlife can succumb to frostbite and hypothermia, just like people and pets. In the northern United States, the unfurred tails of opossums are a common casualty of cold exposure. Every so often an unusual cold snap in Florida results in iguanas falling from trees and manatees dying from cold stress. Avoiding the cold is important for preserving life or limb (or, in the opossum’s case, tail) and the opportunity to reproduce. These biological imperatives mean that wildlife must be able to feel cold, in order to try to avoid the damaging effects of its extremes. Animal species have their own equivalent to what human beings experience as that unpleasant biting mixed with pins-and-needles sensation that urges us to warm up soon or suffer the consequences.
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Researchers discover natural toxin fatal to invasive mussels

Researchers at Wayne State University believe they may have found a way to stop invasive species of mussels from spreading throughout the Great Lakes by using algae. The find, a toxin released by dying algae called Microcystin LR, which when placed in direct contact with juvenile mussels can be fatal. Algal blooms which commonly flourish in the Great Lakes every summer are filled with toxins. Microcystin LR is the most common and also the most toxic, however some researchers don’t believe the application is practical. Scientists remain optimistic over the find as the invaders had been largely left unchecked since their introduction to the Great Lakes through ballast water in the 1980’s.
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Lego starts recycling program for unwanted bricks

Danish toymaker Lego is testing a new way for customers to return their unwanted bricks in an effort to move closer to its goal of switching to 100 percent sustainable materials in the next decade. U.S. customers can now print out a mailing label on its site, dump their used Lego bricks in a box and ship them off for free, the company announced. The pieces will be cleaned, put in a box and given to Teach for America, a nonprofit that will donate them to classrooms across the United States. Some bricks will be sent to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston for its after-school programs. In 2015, the Lego Group announced its ambition to use 100 percent sustainable materials in both its bricks and packaging by 2030. Now the company is speeding up that plan, announcing that it's aiming for 100 percent sustainable packaging by 2025 in an effort to make a "positive impact on the lives of children, our colleagues, our community and the planet." Plastic does not disintegrate. It breaks into smaller pieces, called microplastics, and can be eaten by animals and fish, putting their health at serious risk. It's a problem in all bodies of water, from the oceans to the Great Lakes. Earlier this year, Wayne State University was given a $1 million grant to hopefully find a solution to microplastics.