22 mil. pounds of plastics enter Great Lakes each year
CHICAGO — On a sunny August morning at 31st Street Beach, Tyrone Dobson assembled 20 volunteers to pick up litter from the shores of Lake Michigan.
At first glance, the effort seemed unwarranted. After all, the tire tracks from a Chicago Park District beach groomer were still fresh in what appeared to be pristine sand.
But Dobson, senior volunteer engagement manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, knew better. He instructed the volunteers to take a closer look. Peering around their feet, the group noticed myriad pieces of trash enmeshed in the sand. They meticulously plucked plastic straws, plastic bottles, plastic spoons, plastic wrappers and plastic bottle caps. After two hours of scouring the area, the group had collected 56 pounds of trash.
“Every beach has its own persona,” Dobson said. “Loyola is family friendly so there will be diapers and toys. Montrose and North Avenue is party central so there will be beer cans. But on the whole, it’s always a lot plastic.”
Plastics pollution in global waters has become one of the most complex issues of the 21st century. Scientists have identified giant gyres of garbage accumulating in offshore ocean currents. Examinations of dead whales and other large marine animals show they’ve ingested plastic items, like garbage bags. Researchers say that plastic litter in the oceans is poised to outweigh the amount of fish by 2050.
Meanwhile, microplastics, particles that start out smaller than 5 millimeters or are broken down from larger items, have been found in the falling rain in Colorado, carried by the wind to remote regions of the Pyrenees mountains in France and surfaced in drifting snow in the Arctic.
However, it’s only been in the last decade that research into plastics pollution has gained urgency in the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest system of freshwater.
Plastic debris makes up about 80 percent of the litter on Great Lakes shorelines. Nearly 22 million pounds enter the Great Lakes each year — more than half of which pours into Lake Michigan, according to estimates calculated by the Rochester Institute of Technology. Regardless of size, as plastics linger in the water, they continue to break down from exposure to sunlight and abrasive waves.
Microplastics have been observed in the guts of many Lake Michigan fish, in drinking water and even in beer. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect is that the impact of microplastics on human health remains unclear.
(Chicago Tribune/Tribune News)
Nathan Goldberg, outreach affiliate with Alliance for the Great Lakes, holds a bag with garbage that was collected during a clean-up event in Chicago on Aug. 22.