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When a dead sperm whale washed up on the shores of an Italian beach last week, it wasn't the size of the whale or the fact that she had died that most alarmed conservationists. It was what was inside her stomach.

More than 48 pounds of plastic were found, including disposable dishes, a corrugated tube and shopping bags, according to the World Wildlife Fund. She'd ingested all of it.

“We are in the thick of a global plastic waste crisis," said Nik Sekhran, Chief Conservation Officer at World Wildlife Fund-US, in a press release earlier this spring.

Plastic, as convenient and abundant as it is, has become a major threat not just to the world's oceans but also the Great Lakes. Plastic waste, usually broken down into small particles, covers as much 40 percent of the Earth's ocean surface, according to EcoWatch.

The average American throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic per year.

In the Great Lakes, it's microplastics -- tiny particles of plastic -- that are a big concern and hard to see. Studies have found microplastics, which can slip through water treatment  facilities and are confused as food by fish, in everything from the water we drink to beer, according to the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

But will giving up plastic bags make one bit of difference? Or plastic straws (California is considering a bill to ban straws unless they're requested at a dine-in restaurant)?

It's a start.

Some churches are encouraging parishioners this Lent -- the 40 days before Easter when Christians give up something to deepen their spiritual faith -- to give up plastic, especially single-use plastic. The Anglican Church of Canada created an entire calendar that offers a day-by-day guide to giving up plastics along with a "Community Action" item every Friday.

I'm trying to reduce my own dependence on plastic by doing little things -- bringing my own bags to the grocery store, using glass containers to store food rather than plastic, even rethinking how many Ziplock bags we use.

But giving up plastic isn't easy. It takes planning, diligence and persistence. And not everyone will be on board. 

Checking out at CVS last week, I spread out my merchandise on the counter for the clerk to ring up and realized I'd left my shopping bags in the car.

"I don't need a bag," I told the clerk. 

She looked at me with surprise.

"You don't want a bag?" she asked.

"No," I said, grabbing my goods and fumbling them out to the car.

We face an especially uphill battle in Michigan to limit our use of plastic. While states across the country such as Hawaii and New York are taking steps to phase out plastic, Michigan bizarrely went in the opposite direction in 2016 when state lawmakers passed a bill that prohibits local governments from banning plastic bags.

The law came just as Washtenaw County was set to impose a fee for plastic or bags used at grocery stores.

If you do have plastic bags and aren't sure what to do with them, don't just throw them away. And don't throw them in your recycling bin. Some grocery stores have bins (my local Wal-Mart in Oakland County has one) to recycle plastic bags. Recycle Ann Arbor also suggests stopping by their Drop-Off Station, 2950 E. Ellsworth Road in Ann Arbor or at their Recovery Yard, 7891 Jackson Road.

But plastic bags are one thing. And so is giving up plastics for Lent. But any significant change has to start somewhere.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

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