Garbage in Nature | Photo © nonameman \ Garbage in Nature | Photo © nonameman \

Should the financial burden of removing all plastic debris from the Great Lakes fall on the shoulders of the 36 million people within the basin, researchers now have an estimate of the cleanup costs: $486-million (US).

Findings from the Ecohydrology Research Group at the University of Waterloo published this month in the Journal of Great Lakes Research has taken a critical step in filling the knowledge gap of how plastic waste interacts in freshwater systems as opposed to saltwater seas and oceans.

"We know more and more about ocean plastics, but, paradoxically, we have little information on the distribution and fate of plastic debris in the Great Lakes, the world's largest freshwater resource," according to Philippe Van Cappellen, author of the report and professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Science.

RELATED: How much plastic is in the Great Lakes?

To better understand the economics of plastic waste removal in the Great Lakes, the team applied a $13 (US) per person cost formulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency to measure plastic clean-up expenses in California, Oregon and Washington State in 2012. (This figure was inclusive of what each state spends annually, per person, on “beach and waterway cleanup, street sweeping, installation of storm-water capture devices, storm drain cleaning and maintenance, manual cleanup of litter, and public anti-littering campaigns,” according to the report.)

The result was a staggering $468-million bill for shoreline and deep-water clean-up when the $13 per-person figure was applied to the 36 million people with live within 50 kilometres of a Great Lakes shoreline. But the cost-savings from plastic-free beaches and water is equally massive. A study conducted by Industrial Economics Inc. for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Division found that providing the beach-loving residents of Orange County, California with litter-free beaches closer-to-home could save them $148-million each year in travel costs. Moreover, it would reduce atmospheric pollution by keeping cars from travelling long distances in search of a tan.

The plastic problem in the Great Lakes meets and exceeds litter accumulation levels in two ocean gyres.

Could the same NOAA study hold true for residents of the noticeably cooler and cloudier Great Lakes region? The report’s authors think so. “By extrapolation, we expect that littered beaches in the Great Lakes region similarly cost residents millions of dollars annually due to increased travel expenditures,” they wrote.

The sheer volume of plastic waste in the Great Lakes became clearer in 2012. Research from SUNY Fredonia chemist Sherri Mason identified more than 450,000 individual plastic pieces per square kilometre, a substantial portion of which came as microplastics from consumer products.

The Waterloo study, led by Ecohydrology Research Group graduate student and lead author Alex Driedger, also made the suggestion that on a metre-by-metre basis, the plastic problem in the Great Lakes meets and exceeds litter accumulation levels in two ocean gyres. Together, Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie contain 0.0425 items of plastic per square metre compared with the South Pacific Gyre (0.0269 items/m²) and the North Atlantic Gyre (0.0203 items/m²). Only the North Pacific Gyre — home of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — contains more plastic waste with 0.3343 items/m².

The study classifies “shoreline and recreational” as the leading culprit, everything from plastic bags and bottles to six-pack rings, toys and shotgun shells. Cigarette butts, lighters and packaging make up the second, almost equally large, component of trash. Together, they eclipse auxiliary debris like personal hygiene waste, fishing detritus, car tires or drug paraphernalia.  

The bad news is that the entirety of this plastic waste problem in the Great Lakes is anthropogenic, meaning humans are entirely responsible for such vast quantities of plastic ending up in the Great Lakes. But the good news is the problem is anthropogenic, meaning we have equal control over changing our actions and reducing the plastic debris that flows seaward.

Andrew Reeves is the Editor-in-Chief of Alternatives Journal. Overrun, his book about Asian carp in North America, will be published in Spring 2019 by ECW Press. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights. Follow him on Twitter.

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