The Science of Sustainability

Troubled Waters: Lake Erie's Plastic Problem

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Plastic trash is making its way into Lake Erie, where researchers have found a higher density of plastics than any other body of water. Credit: WCPN ideastream

Credit: WCPN ideastream

Community Contributor | Erin Huber, Executive Director of Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

 

"I want to say one word to you — just one word.
Are you listening?
‘Plastics.’ "

Mr. McGuire had it right in the 1967 movie The Graduate: plastics have made a splash. Since 1980,plastic production has gone up 500 percent to meet demand, but this boom has come at a steep environmental price.

This Rainbow Runner, a fish commonly found on menus and fish markets around the country, was found in the mid-Pacific Ocean in 2008 with 17 microplastic bits found in its stomach. Credit: Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute

This Rainbow Runner, a fish commonly found on menus and fish markets around the country, was found in the mid-Pacific Ocean in 2008 with 17 microplastic bits found in its stomach.
Credit: Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres Institute

In recent years researchers and news agencies have been buzzing about the buildup of plastic debris in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is said to be twice the size of the state of Texas.

But recent studies show that salt water isn’t the only place with a plastic problem. Scientists from the 5 Gyres Institute, a research-based advocacy group, studied plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, the largest bodies of fresh water in the world.

There they found the highest concentration of plastics — denser than in the oceans — in Lake Erie. Similar results were found by University of Wisconsin-Superior chemist Dr. Lorena Rios-Mendoza.

How did all of this plastic end up in Lake Erie?

Trash from beaches, river banks, and neighborhood gutters makes its way into our waterways.  Things like plastic cigar tips, food wrappers, toys, and disposable drink bottles get bumped around, blown, and washed off into the streets, through the sewers, and into Lake Erie.

The plastics break down into tiny pieces while traveling through the waterways, but they don’t biodegrade. These tiny bits of

Face washes containing plastic microbead scrubbers could be contributing to Lake Erie's plastic soup.Credit: 5 Gyres Institute

Face washes containing plastic microbead scrubbers could be contributing to Lake Erie's plastic soup. Credit: 5 Gyres Institute

plastic, sometimes referred to as “toxic mermaid tears,” are found in Lake Erie at three times the density of anywhere else on Earth.

Plastic pollution also comes from pea-sized nurdles, the preproduction base for plastics products. They enter waterways during the plastic industry’s manufacturing and shipping processes.

Another small particle that packs a big plastic punch comes from facial scrubs.

Researchers at 5 Gyre discovered tiny round balls in Lake Erie water samples that they say are a perfect match with the microbeads found in certain face washes. According to the research group, water samples from Lake Erie were loaded with these microbeads. They plan to publish their results this summer in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, and are urging companies to phase out plastic microbead scrubbers.

Why does plastic in Lake Erie matter?

Over time, plastics easily attract and hold hazardous persistent organic pollutants (POPs). It’s been documented that marine animals eat these plastics, affecting their digestive systems and possibly causing malnutrition. Officials with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources say this summer they’re following up with surveys of plastic content in Lake Erie fish. If people eat fish that have consumed plastic particles, it’s likely that the plastic chemicals will end up in humans, too.

Since Lake Erie is a source of water for many cities, there’s also a concern that these plastics could leach chemicals into the water supply that may be harmful to humans. One chemical of concern is bisphenol A (BPA), which is found in many plastics and coatings and is a known endocrine disrupter. Not only can BPA and other chemicals leach into the contents of a container, such as bottled water, or person using a certain product, such as thermal receipt paper or BPA-lined food cans, but chemicals like BPA can also leach into the surrounding environment.

What can be done?

The plastics in Lake Erie and elsewhere will not go away, but further pollution control is certainly possible. Right now remediation options are generally unknown, though some whimsical solutions have been proposed, such as giant floating funnels and soap bottles made of ocean trash.  Many organizations, such as the United Nations, are aware of the need to remediate waters and protect them from additional plastic pollution.

Companies like Unilever and Johnson & Johnson have already begun to phase out microbeads because of pollution concerns and public pressure.  In addition, some organizations, like Plastic Pollution Coalition, have been working on behavior change in the public and industry to reduce the use of all forms of plastics. Scientists and advocates alike are urging individuals to help diminish the demand by doing simple things like drinking local tap water instead of  buying bottled water, using reusable containers instead of disposables, and buying microbead-free products.

While more research is needed to document and quantify the full extent and impacts of the plastics pollution in Lake Erie and other waterways, there’s already enough data to know that it’s time to rethink our relationship with plastic.

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Category: Blog, Environment, Sustainable Health, Water

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Erin Huber

About the Author ()

Ms. Huber is a social entrepreneur and the executive director and founder of Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. She has a decade-long history of civic engagement, project management, working with youth, mentoring, leadership, volunteerism, environmental stewardship, and academic accomplishments proven by an extensive list of awards and honors. She was recently selected to present at bigBANG! in Cleveland, Ohio, named one of Cleveland’s Most Interesting People of 2012 by Cleveland Magazine, inducted into the 2012 Mentor High School (Ohio) Alumni Hall of Fame, awarded the 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award from the Urban College at Cleveland State University and featured a water action figure by Circle of Blue. Huber is the executive producer of the 2013 documentary, “Making Waves from Cleveland to Uganda“, and advocates for safe water through speaking engagements domestically and designing and building safe water projects globally in east Africa. Her mission is to save our water and save lives. Ms. Huber is a native Northeast Ohioan currently residing in Lakewood, Ohio. She holds the following credentials; Master of Science in Urban Studies: Sustainability Policy and New Economics , Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science: Policy and Planning, Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, and Certificate for Liveroof Installations, Liveroof Inc.
  • Jason Black

    Great article, Erin. I was on Phi Phi island in Thailand not too long ago, and the beaches on the undeveloped side of the island were literally knee deep in plastic beverage bottles. It's time for consumers to insist that environmental impacts are factored into product design, and it's time to start talking about these choices with our peers.

    • DrinkLocal.DrinkTap.

      Thanks for sharing! Yes, disposable plastics are a huge problem we created and we have to make better choices. Thanks for doing your part!

  • http://socialentrepreneurship.change.org/actions/view/twenty-first_century_metric_america_in_your_state BeholdersEye

    People need to rethink what trash really is, we should have a boycott landfill day and start buying more recycled products…

    • DrinkLocal.DrinkTap.

      Great idea!

  • Sona

    How can I incorporate this as a science fair project, I want to create awareness.