How Your Face Wash and Toothpaste Are Destroying the Great Lakes

Already under duress from algae blooms, Asian carp, and industrial pollution, the Great Lakes face a new, invisible threat: microscopic plastic pollution.

plastic pollution great lakes

Just how much plastic pollution is lurking under the pristine waters of Lake Erie? (Photo: G.Cappelli/Getty Images)

Sal holds a Political Science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

The Great Lakes are littered with "millions of plastic litter bits," and my first question is: Should we really be surprised given how much plastic detritus is floating in the world's oceans?

According to scientists, this newfound Great Lake plastic is only visible through a microscope, unlike the plastic filth in, say, the Pacific Ocean, most of which is visible to the naked eye.

"If you're out boating in the Great Lakes, you're not going to see large islands of plastic," said Sherri Mason, a chemist with State University of New York at Fredonia, to the Associated Press. "But all these bits of plastic are out there."

While not totally sure about the source of this pollution in the Great Lakes, scientists do have a good lead: A lot of the particles are perfectly round pellets. This leads many of the same experts to believe they're "micro beads" used in personal care products such as facial and body washes, and toothpaste.

According to the Associated Press:

These beads are “so minuscule that they flow through screens at waste treatment plants and wind up in the lakes, said Lorena Rios Mendoza, a chemist with the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

At the urging of scientists and advocates, some big companies have agreed to phase them out.

Plastics now account for up to 90 percent of ocean pollution. The Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch, for example, is believed to be the “twice the size of Texas,” with plastic particles outweighing plankton six-to-one.

As bad as that is, it's worse in the Great Lakes, one in particular:

The sheer number of plastic specks in some samples hauled from Lake Erie, the shallowest and smallest by volume, were higher than in comparable samples taken in the oceans.

The scientists behind the study fear these tiny particles will one day enter the food chain through fish and eventually make their way up to human consumers. Who's ready for white lakefish a la microbead?

My biggest fear with this story?

Since plastic pollution is microscopic, it's a problem that will (sadly) fall into the "out of sight, out of mind" thinking that stymies so many of our toughest ecological fistfights, climate change chief among them.

Think about it: If we could anthropomorphize the atmospheric concentraion of greenhouse gases—if we put a beating heart into a carbon molecule—don't you think the American public would be further down the road to acknowledging and then fighting the problem?

I do.

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