In cooperation with the 5 Gyres Institute, Sheri Mason, a professor at SUNY Fredonia, led a survey of plastic pollution in three of the Great Lakes last July.
She was startled by the results.
“We had two samples in Lake Erie that we just kept going back and rechecking the data because the count, the number of plastic particles in the sample, was three times greater than any sample collected anywhere in the entire world.”
Stiv Wilson of 5 Gyres said the plastics in the Great Lakes is different from what’s found in the ocean, in that they “. . . appear to be intact, non-photodegraded (sun-degraded) plastic beads probably used in facial cleansers or for abrasives in ship sandblasting that have entered the watershed by runoff or sewage outfall.
“By count, our data shows three times as many pieces of plastic as a typical oceanic gyre sample, but they’re small–.5 millimeters and below, not the typical 5 millimeter fragments found in the Ocean.”
Wilson said the plastics concentrated in the Great lakes are much lower by weight than are concentrations in the oceans, making the Great Lakes pollution unusual in the number of its particles.
Plastics readily absorb toxic chemicals from the water, toxins such as DDT and other persistent organic pollutants that have circulated in the Great Lakes for decades. And because these microparticles are too small to be filtered out by existing sewage treatment systems, they enter the food chain at all levels, from phytoplankton to fish to humans.
Mason observed, “The reality is that all the plastic we see in the environment makes its way into the water, which means it’s making its way ultimately into us.
“What we find in the lakes is coming from us, so we’re the problem, but we’re also the solution.
“I always want to encourage people to be thinking about their own lives and what they can do. If they’re not going to go out and clean up the beach, they can find ways to reduce plastic in their own lives, especially single-use plastics.
“Forgo the straw.
“Stop buying disposable plastic bottles.
“Bring reusable bags so you don’t need to take plastic bags home.”
As investigations reveal how much plastic is involved, where it comes from and how it travels between lakes and from lakes to the oceans, the results may suggest ways to mitigate the situation.
Stay tuned–next year the group will survey Lake Michigan.
Sources: plasticnews.com, November 8, 2012 Discovery News, November 28, 2012 5 Gyres Great Lakes Expedition, September 4, 2012