Plastic particle counts in the Great Lakes

Plastic Particle Counts in the Great Lakes 
With counts in excess of 100,000 per km2, Lake Erie is hit hardest by microplastic pollution.
Adapted from “Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes,” Marcus Eriksen, Sherri Mason et al., published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2013. 

CHEMISTRY PROFESSOR Sherri Mason made a splash in 2012 when she and a crew of 20 graduate students from the State University of New York at Fredonia set sail on the Great Lakes in search of plastic. Aboard the Flagship Niagara, a wooden replica of a War of 1812 tall ship, her group trawled for plastic pieces floating in open water. The results from 21 samples identified up to 450,000 individual plastic particles per square kilometre.

“We thought, we are looking upstream from the ocean, so what we’re going to pick up are bags and bottles,” Mason told A\J. “Instead it was the exact opposite. Seventy per cent of the plastic we are pulling out of the Great Lakes is actually incredibly small, less than one millimetre.”

A substantial portion of the floating Great Lakes plastic comes from exfoliating microbeads found in facial scrubs. Viewed under the microscope, a significant percentage of the plastic waste Mason and her team hauled from the Lakes was brightly coloured, perfectly spherical balls.

How bad is the problem? Research by Marcus Eriksen at the Five Gyres Institute in Los Angeles found an average tube of facial cleanser contained roughly 330,000 microbeads. They’re easily flushed down the drain and into local water bodies since water treatment plants can’t detect and remove such microscopic pieces.

Once released, these colourful pieces are ingested by everything from planktonic organisms at the very base of the food chain and up. The potential for plastic to bioaccumulate throughout the food web is enormous, Mason said. And since plastic absorbs polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other toxins, the poisonous trail is affecting many levels of aquatic life.

In response, cosmetics companies like L’Oreal, The Body Shop and Johnson & Johnson have committed to phasing out plastic microbeads by 2015. Proctor & Gamble has promised to do so by 2017.

However, further study showed the bigger fear for Lake Michigan is straggly microplastic fibres. When clothes are washed, thousands of synthetic fibres from polyester, nylon and fleece break away and go down the drain. They too end up in nearby water bodies where they may pose an even larger threat to aquatic life than microbeads do. While a fish may ingest a plastic bead, by 24 to 36 hours later that piece has likely been excreted, Mason said. But stringy fibres become entangled in a fish’s digestive tract, making it easier for toxins to leach.

While industry is moving to reduce or eliminate microbeads in body wash, numerous state governments are moving to ban products containing them. Mason recently met with Environment Canada to discuss how Ottawa can help divert plastic waste from the Great Lakes. And the rest of us? Avoid plastic bags in grocery stores, Mason suggests, and buy products that shun microbeads. As for that warm fleece jacket? “I don’t know what to recommend with regard to microfibre,” Mason said with a laugh, “because I’m definitely not going to come out and tell people they can’t wear fleece in winter.”

How much would it cost to clean up all the plastic in the Great Lakes? Find out here
Take action: Environmental Defence has a petition to ban microbeads in Canada.
Reduce your use: Visit Ban the Microbead to see what products are microbead-free.

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

Follow him on Twitter.

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