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Microplastics threaten Great Lakes, and not just the water

Lillian Young
Capital News Service

Lansing — Microplastic particles, typically studied as aquatic pollutants, are also common in coastal dunes on Great Lakes’ shorelines, according to a new study. 

The situation is worse than researchers originally expected. Based on findings from the eastern shore of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, microplastic pollution is frequently transported from shore to coastal land.

What does that mean for the coastal ecosystems?

Pieces of microplastics are common on Great Lakes’ coastal dunes shorelines.

Nothing good, the study published in the “Journal of Great Lakes Research” suggests, highlighting that microplastics can obstruct animals’ digestive tracts and absorb, then trap, toxic chemicals.

The transfer of microplastics from lake to shore occurs because they’re generally less dense than water, the study said. This trait allows winds to move them easily to the shore.

Due to their high mobility, microplastics can travel long distances and disperse over a large area, according to researchers from the State University of New York at Oneonta.

While individual responsibility is important, people shouldn’t feel guilt over small choices when most pollution comes from large companies, said Meaghan Gass, a Michigan Sea Grant educator in the Saginaw Bay area who specializes in community resiliency and Great Lakes literacy.

This Jan. 19, 2020 photo shows microplastic debris that has washed up at Depoe Bay, Ore. Dozens of scientists from around the U.S. West will attend a gathering this week in Bremerton, Wash., to better focus the research on the environmental threat.

Gass is working on a local scale to educate elementary school students about the importance of a clean environment through a program called “Plastics Float.” Students are encouraged to act locally as leaders to create a more sustainable community, doing things such as convincing restaurant owners to hand out plastic straws only when customers ask for them.

She introduces the topic of microplastics to students early in their education so that, by the time they graduate, they’re aware of how the choices they and their communities make impact the environment.

The latest scientific confirmation of plastic particles on shores indicates that the problem of water-borne microplastics is increasingly serious, experts said.

This Jan. 19, 2020 photo shows microplastic debris that has washed up at Depoe Bay, Ore.

Since people eat fish from the Great Lakes and animals from the coastal areas around them, toxins in the microplastics can move up in the food chain to humans.

According to Sarah Zack, a pollution prevention expert at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, scientists have found that the space plastic takes up in animals’ guts can cause damage that is sometimes irreversible.

“Aquatic organisms are impacted when they eat plastic instead of their normal food,” Zack said. She described how their growth, reproduction and survival can all suffer as a result of such pollution.

Without a healthy supply of fish in the Great Lakes, local economies could falter, she said. Microplastic pollution “has implications for economies and industries dependent on healthy fish populations, like fishing and tourism,” Zack said.

Microplastics are a “large-scale problem without many large-scale solutions,” according to Zack.

Concerns about microplastics in the Great Lakes aren’t limited to the U.S., said Kari Lydersen, a Chicago-based author and journalist who specializes in the environment.

In October, Lydersen wrote a piece for the Alliance for the Great Lakes describing the strange and relatively new threat that microplastics pose.

“Everyone really contributes to it through our lifestyles,” she said.

She described aquatic microplastic pollution in the water as a “shared problem” for the U.S. and Canada, given their similar ways of life and proximity to the Great Lakes.

The study confirmed Lydersen’s take, saying that tributaries to the Great Lakes serve as pathways for microplastics.

Zack agreed with Lydersen on the difficulty of stopping microplastic pollution due to their numerous sources such as trash, disposable cutlery and wastewater from washing machines.

“Because the problem is so widespread and has so many different sources, how do you solve it? There have been some engineering innovations, but nothing on a large scale that I’m aware of,” she said.

“To me, at least right now, it comes down to making good choices and personal responsibility,” she added.

Zack said people can avoid single-use plastic and use a special wash bag when cleaning clothes made of fleece or other materials that shed a lot of fibers.

Lillian Young writes for Great Lakes Echo.