Lake pollution rivals ocean ‘garbage patch'

“We are the problem. The good news is that we are also the solution.” This is a quote from Dr. Sherri Mason, a professor of chemistry at State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia, when speaking about plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Dr. Mason is a leading researcher on this topic, and conducted the first ever plastic pollution survey within the Great Lakes. I was fortunate to attend a presentation by Dr. Mason and afterward participate in a discussion about this topic last week at the Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Mason, along with Marcus Erikson of the 5 Gyres Institute, conducted the first open-water surveys of the Great Lakes in 2012 and 2013. In Lake Superior and Lake Huron, they found 7,000 plastic particles per square kilometer (km2). In Lake Michigan, they found 17,000 plastic particles per km2; in Lake Erie they found 46,000 plastic particle per km2; and the lake with the highest level of plastic particles is Lake Ontario with 230,000 per km2. The flow of the lakes into one another is why Erie and Ontario have become the most polluted; the water from the other lakes flows into Erie and finally into Ontario.

The levels of plastics found in both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario rival pollution levels found in the most polluted parts of the ocean, i.e. the Great Pacific Garbage patch. Let that sink in. The contamination level of the entirety of Lake Erie rivals the most polluted part of the ocean.  

The size of the plastics in the lake they found is also notable. Ninety-six percent of the plastic they found measured less than 4.7 millimeters, with 67 percent measuring less than 1mm. The bigger plastics (larger than 4.75mm) amounted to only 4 percent of what they found. Why is this important? Because the plankton eat the microplastics, and the bigger fish eat the plankton, and the plastic continues up the food chain. Guess who eats the bigger fish? We do.

In order to examine the food chain issue, Dr. Mason is also conducting a food web study in the Great Lakes. She and her research team included 24 species of fish and one bird species. The study has not yet been completed, but her preliminary results have found plastic in every single species they examined.

Why is this concerning to us? Because plastic does not belong in the lake. It is dangerous to wildlife, and it is dangerous to us.

What are solutions we can focus on to reduce plastic in the lake? Refuse single-use plastic. Every. Single. Time. Our society and culture has become so dependent upon conveniences: plastic bags from the grocery store used for minutes then discarded; plastic water bottles; to-go coffee cups; straws; plastic plates and utensils, etc. All of these single-use plastic items are unnecessary. Humans have lived without them before, we can certainly live without them now.

The invention of plastic has no doubt been great for the world, it has saved lives and contributes to the betterment of life in myriad ways. However, it does not make sense for us to use convenience plastic for two minutes, when that plastic will be on earth for generations and generations. It will not go away. Every piece of plastic made is still on earth. It cannot be recycled, only downcycled into a lesser product than it was.

If plastic makes its way into our waterways and out into the lake or ocean, it breaks down in the water and becomes microplastic. Single-use plastics are polluting the earth and each of us has the power to do something about that. We are the problem; we are also the solution. 

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Volume 9, Issue 8, Posted 9:56 AM, 04.18.2017