The world’s largest freshwater ecosystem is awash in plastic. Bags and bottle caps litter beaches. Tiny plastic fibers ride the waves. Small, broken-down pellets swirl close to shore. Microscopic plastic bits drift throughout all five Great Lakes and are turning up in drinking water, locally brewed beer, and the stomachs of wildlife. In short, plastic is everywhere.
In the nascent scientific field of plastic pollution, researchers are looking into how much plastic is already in the lakes, where it comes from, and how it might affect the ecosystem. The hope is that the more we know about the plastic flowing into the Great Lakes, the more we can do to curb it.
Manufacturers are currently generating more single-use plastic than ever before, with half of the world’s plastic hitting the market within the past 13 years. And globally, we recycle just 9 percent of it. Most (at least 60 percent) winds up in landfills or the environment—and up to 10,000 metric tons of plastic enters the Great Lakes every year.
Unlike ocean plastics, which can get caught up in currents and circulate around the globe, the material swirling in the Great Lakes has nowhere to go. It usually comes from nearby sources, such as sewer pipes carrying refuse that’s been washed into street drains, washing machines that send microfibers into city treatment systems, and windblown litter from beachgoers or lakeside neighborhoods. The larger plastic chunks break down into microplastics and tend to concentrate on the shores closest to big cities like Cleveland and Chicago.
Tim Hoellein, an aquatic ecologist who studies the lakes’ plastic pollution at Loyola University Chicago, has found microplastics and microfibers in the guts of 94 percent of the fish he has sampled. He and others are looking into how those plastics might affect fish and human health, but they don’t have any clear answers yet. What we do know is that these tiny plastics seem to travel through a fish’s digestive tract within two days (one of Hoellein’s grad students is studying this), but plastic pieces almost always get stuck somewhere in the fish’s body along the way. Another Hoellein discovery is that in riverine environments, microplastics appear to function like other small particles (think sand) and can look like fish food for decades.
“In one way or another, plastic becomes part of the ecosystem,” says Hoellein. “It’s not going away. It sticks around.” Plastic is, after all, designed for durability.
The decision of how to deal with this insidious problem is necessarily a local one. No national standard or mandate for how to treat or recycle plastic currently exists, so each state and city handle it differently. Here are some ways citizens and lawmakers in the Great Lakes region (and anywhere) can help tackle plastic at its source: us.