I Went to the Great Lakes and All I Got Was This Lousy Pile of Plastic

A report finds new garbage patches in the Great Lakes with higher concentrations of plastics than those found in the ocean.

Great Lakes plastics concentrations were a surprise to researchers. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Apr 13, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

I grew up on Lake Michigan and have spent hundreds of days trolling its northern white sand beaches on foot and by small boat. Gazing out at the horizon from its shore—like any of the Great Lakes, including Erie, Superior, Huron and Ontario, the largest collection of fresh water lakes in the world—it feels like you are standing on the edge of a vast ocean.

In fact, the Great Lakes are referred to by some as America’s “third coast.”

Now, thanks to a report by the American Chemical Society, the Great Lakes have more in common with the oceans than just the appearance of an endless horizon. You know those plastic gyres that have been found swirling around in all of the world’s oceans? The ones variously described as “twice the size of Texas,” with plastic particles outweighing plankton six-to-one?

It turns out similar quantities of plastic pollution are now growing in the Great Lakes—and in even larger concentrations. With a volume equal to 1.65 million Olympic swimming pools, this is the first time that scientists have studied Great Lakes plastic pollution levels.

At its 245th National Meeting & Exposition this week in New Orleans, the ACS distributed a paper based on last summer’s trawling of Lake Erie for floating debris. It found 85 percent of the samples collected were made up of the Great Lakes plastic particles smaller than two tenths of one inch.

In the average square mile, researchers found between 1,500 and 1.7 million microscopic plastic particles.

The same team that studied the Great Lakes plastic pollution, led by Dr. Lorena M. Rios Mendoza, had previously conducted similar research in the southern Atlantic Ocean and found the plastic pollution in Lake Erie to be 24 percent higher.

These microparticles they reported finding are particularly insidious and harmful to wildlife, specifically fish and birds, simply because they are tiny and become part of the food chain. Analyses of fish stomachs by the research team found them packed with plastic. Human consumption can’t be far off.

“The massive production of plastic and inadequate disposal has made plastic debris an important and constant pollutant on beaches and in oceans around the world, and the Great Lakes are not an exception,” Rios Mendoza said in an ACS press release.

“The main problem with these plastic sizes is its accessibility to freshwater organisms that can be easily confused as natural food, and the total surface area for adsorption of toxins and pseudo-estrogens increases significantly,” Rios said.

She also pointed out that the problem of ocean plastics is quickly growing. Plastic production has increased 500 percent since 1980, and plastics now account for 80 to 90 percent of ocean pollution.

Where does the Great Lakes' plastic come from? The usual suspects: plastic bags, bottles, discarded fishing lines, household cleaners, and synthetic fibers that come off clothes when they're washed. In the Great Lakes specifically, the researchers say they found large amounts of raw plastic pellets, which are shipped around the world to be melted down and molded into everything from plastic milk jugs to parts for cars.

President Obama, whose family home in Chicago is a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan, recently included a Great Lakes plastics cleanup program in his 2014 budget. It asks for $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which is designed to make progress on some of the lakes’ biggest environmental problems, such as invasive species, contaminated hot spots, toxic algae blooms and wildlife habitat loss.

There is no mention in the initiative for sucking up all this newly discovered plastic.

Do you think companies who use plastic packaging should be compelled to help clean up plastic pollution? Let us know in the Comments.