Plastics in the Great Lakes… are Smaller Than You Think

It was a half hour session that could have easily gone on for another hour. At one point, Dr. Marcus Eriksen of the 5 Gyres Institute held up a tube of exfoliating cream, a ball jar filled with water and a black t-shirt to demonstrate exactly what type of plastic he was finding in his Great Lakes samples. After squeezing a small amount of cream into the jar of water, shaking it and filtering out the sudsy water through the black t-shirt, he was left with what seemed like a hundred or more polyethylene microbeads.

Microbeads on black t-shirt

Microbeads demo during “Plastics in the Great Lakes” session by Dr. Marcus Eriksen of the 5 Gyres Institute at the 8th Annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Cleveland. Photo by Frances Canonizado

Dr. Eriksen and Dr. Sharri Mason of Fredonia University shared the alarming results of their new research on plastics in the Great Lakes. This year, they joined the U.S. Brig Niagara – a floating research vessel and museum when in its homeport of Pennsylvania – and sailed Lakes Huron, Superior, and Erie to collect 21 water samples.

While the bulk of their analysis is still ongoing, some of the highlights of their research include:

  • Plastic samples in the Great Lakes are not as degraded as samples from the oceans – they are still relatively new.
  • A bulk of the samples were microbeads. Sample #20, for example had 1,596 fragments of plastic. This was the most dense sample found – even in comparison to other ocean samples.
  • While in ports of call, they collected 8 beach samples. Results: Most of the debris was plastic – either microbeads or nurdles (plastic resin pellets that can be melted down to produce other plastic products).

As with any type of research, their work is leading to more questions:

  • What animals are ingesting these microplastics in the Great Lakes?
  • And because microplastics attract toxic pollutants – how is this impacting lake biology?

Consider Your Impact

There is a lot of debris in the Great Lakes, and along with cigarette filters, food wrappers, and balloon string, microplastics are a now a new cause for concern. Drs. Eriksen and Mason are finding it in the water and on beaches around the basin. And while they continue their research on the impacts these microplastics have on lakes as an ecosystem, they are asking that we consider our own impact. Read labels; stay away from polyethylene microbeads in skin care products; choose natural exfoliators. And equally important: contact your elected officials to let them know that the Great Lakes need to be protected. Important research in emerging contaminants is crucial to Great Lakes restoration. As we make strides in implementing solutions to the problems we are familiar with, it’s imperative that we are prepared for the emerging threats.

Nurdles - plastic resin pellets

Nurdles -plastic resin pellets- on a beach among marine debris. Photo courtesy of Sustainable Coastlines

Guest blogger:
Frances Canonizado
Outreach Manager
Alliance for the Great Lakes

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