Troubled Waters: Lake Erie's Plastic Problem
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?
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.
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.
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
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.