Microplastics Laboratory

Lab Description

The Microplastics Research Team at the Desert Research Institute is working to understand microplastic contamination and develop novel methodologies that will enhance our understanding of microplastics in freshwater environments.

The DRI Microplastics Laboratory is equipped to investigate environmental MP contamination in a range of complex samples from natural water and sediment samples, to aquatic fauna. Our facilities include wet lab capabilities and instrumentation for isolating, imaging, and quantifying MP contamination. We are also developing novel water sampling methodologies that support more efficient MP pollution sample collection, analysis, and identification, as well as sample and data standardization. 

What are Microplastics?

The accumulation of plastic debris is an increasing concern for the environment following decades of global plastic production, much of which is single-use. Microplastics (MPs, particles ≤ 5 mm) are an emerging environmental contaminate because of their insolubility, durability, and small size, which leads to their ubiquity in marine and freshwater systems. The largest contributor of MPs is the breakdown of larger secondary plastics including textiles, fishing lines, tire wear and tear, and consumer products that are released into the environment via spills, atmospheric deposition, littering, and wastewater.

On August 22, 2019, the World Health Organization called for more research on MPs, stating that “Further research is needed to obtain a more accurate assessment of exposure to microplastics and their potential impacts on human health. These include developing standard methods for measuring microplastic particles in water; more studies on the sources and occurrence of microplastics in fresh water; and the efficacy of different treatment processes.”

Current Research and Community Engagement Activities:

  • Assessing Microplastic Pollution in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Lake Tahoe is a naturally formed, alpine lake that is protected by numerous state and local laws with the intent to preserve lake clarity, ecosystem health, and drinking water quality. We are conducting the first assessment of MP pollution in Lake Tahoe and the surrounding basin. Results include the presence of MPs, especially microfibers, in lake water and regional snow samples, and will provide pilot data for a larger regional MP study. Funding is provided through the DRI Innovative Research Project funds.
  • Developing Citizen Science Programs that Engage the Public in Microplastic Research and Mitigation Efforts. Citizen Science programs developed in conjunction with the League to Save Lake Tahoe, are engaging the community in MP research, education, and mitigation. These programs include citizen collected water samples to support MP monitoring efforts; and engaging the community to test the efficacy of MP fiber collection devices. Funding is provided through the DRI Innovative Research Project funds.
  • Investigating the Bioaccumulation of Microplastics in Benthic Fish in the Las Vegas Wash. We are currently studying MP accumulation in freshwater fish in the Las Vegas Wash. Data and methodologies will inform future research on the impacts of MP pollution on endogenous, and endangered fish populations in the Lake Tahoe basin and other freshwater systems. This work is funded by a DRI Maki grant.
  • Developing Novel Approaches for Sampling and Identifying Microplastic Pollution. Methodologies for MP sampling, sample processing, identification, and quantification are in their infancy. Our team is developing novel methodologies that will improve on existing approaches by increasing the ease of sample collection and analysis, advancing data quality, and establishing standardization guidelines to facilitate MP pollution comparisons between studies.

Actions you can take

Our team has talked to many community members since launching our research, and the most common question we get is: “So what can I do about the microplastics problem?”. We created a list of seven evidence-based solutions that you can easily do to make an impact.

Don’t forget to check out the “Myths about Microplastics” that illuminate some of the common misconceptions related to microplastics.


Are Dryers a Source of Microplastics?

Report back to citizen scientists

Your contribution to the Clothes Drying Habits study at DRI and the League to Save Lake Tahoe is helping us to understand if clothing dryers emit small bits of plastics (called microplastics, or microfibers from synthetic clothing).

We set out to determine if dryers release lint and other particulates into the atmosphere, which potentially includes small plastic particles from synthetic clothing. We hypothesized that one potential source of microfibers to Lake Tahoe is dryer vent emissions, and we asked you to share your habits related to drying clothes with us.

Citizen scientists like you submitted 115 dryer loads in total. There were approximately 20 people involved in the study. Read on to see a summary of what this group submitted this summer.

The first thing we looked at were the items that people typically wash. Here, you can see the different large items that people typically dry. In general, towels, sheets and pants made up the largest items dried by this group this summer.

Graph showing the largest items that people typically wash

Then we asked you to share the material that these large items were made of. These larger items were generally made up of Cotton or Polyester, with Nylon in a distant third. Worldwide, more than half of textiles contain plastics, and the three most commonly used plastic textiles are polyester, nylon, and acrylic. Globally, the two most important fibers used in the textile industry are cotton and polyester, just like the results we see here.

Graph showing the material that large dryer items were made of

Just for fun, we made a graph of the days of the week that you did laundry. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday are the days people are least likely to dry their clothing.

Graph showing days of the week that study participants do laundry

When we asked participants if this is something they could see themselves installing in their house and regularly removing built-up lint, 100% of respondents said yes.

Dryer vent lint catcher Number of participants who would use a dryer vent lint catcher in normal life

This fall, we will be working hard to analyze the results of the Dryer Lint Study, which is examining the makeup of the lint that was caught in the DRI Dryer Vents to determine how much is made up of synthetic fibers. Keep a look out for those results!

This project was funded in part by the REI Co-op.

Coming soon…

Research Goals

The microplastics team at DRI includes scientists with expertise in the fields of geology, hydrology, microbiology, wildlife biology, social sciences, and community outreach and communication. We are committed to increasing our understanding of MP contamination in natural resources, including the impact of MPs on ecosystem health. Our research efforts are guided by three primary goals which include 1) Develop and conduct novel research and methodologies that lead to a better understanding of MP pollution in natural systems; 2) Develop MP mitigation approaches informed by actual research findings; and 3) Increase public awareness of MP pollution sources and leverage community engagement to support MP research and mitigation efforts.

Our Team

Monica Arienzo, Ph.D.
Associate Research Professor, Hydrology
Desert Research Institute
(775) 673-7693

John Umek
Postdoctoral Fellow Hydrology

Meghan Collins, M.Sc.
Assistant Research Scientist, Environmental Science
Desert Research Institute

Zoe Harrold, Ph.D.
Assistant Research Scientist, Biogeochemistry
Desert Research Institute

Julia Davidson
Student, Laboratory Technician
Desert Research Institute

The Microplastics Lab at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) is always looking for talented and motivated students. Students that work in our group generally have interests in geochemistry, analytical laboratory and field work, water quality, and/or human-environment interaction. Many of the students in the Microplastics Lab enroll in the University of Nevada Reno Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences (https://www.unr.edu/hydrologic-sciences) or the Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology program (https://www.unr.edu/eecb). If you’re interested in joining us for graduate school, please check out the lab website and email Monica Arienzo.

Learn More 

DRI Blog: Problem Plastics

Read about and watch the DRI “Behind the Science” story about the microplastics research team sampling at Lake Tahoe.

News Story: Microplastics found in Lake Tahoe for the First Time

Read about DRI’s discovery of microplastics in the waters of Lake Tahoe in the LA Times. 

Tip Sheet: Microplastics Pollution Research in the Sierra Nevada

Download DRI’s Microplastic Research Media Tip Sheet for the AGU 2019 Fall Meeting.


Monica Arienzo, Ph.D.
Lab Director

Meghan Collins, M.Sc.
Education Program Manager


Desert Research Institute
2215 Raggio Parkway
Reno, NV 89512


Hydrologic Sciences