This story originally aired April 29, 2013
Plastic, plastic everywhere...
Wind and waves churn the rocky shore of Edgewater Park near downtown Cleveland. It's a frequent haunt of Nancy Hughes, sustainability coordinator with Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and one of the organizers of the Great Lake Erie boat float. Her job is to educate people about the perils of plastic pollution. She says, “You see all the plastic on the shoreline, you can’t miss it.”
Hughes reads from the list of top ten plastic items found on the beach by volunteers from the Alliance for the Great Lakes during a 2011 clean-up – “cigar tips, caps & lids, cigarette filters, containers, beverage containers, straws and stirrers, food wrappers, cups and utensils, cans, plastic bags, tampon applicators...” But what’s surprising researchers is not the piles of trash on Ohio’s beaches, but the prevalence of plastic out it the water that’s largely invisible.
Lake Erie's hidden plastic problem
Last summer Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor from State University New York conducted the first ever survey of suspended plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. “We had one count that was around 450,000 pieces of plastic per sq. kilometer, and another count that was upwards of 600,000 pieces of plastic per sq. Kilometer.” Both were in eastern Lake Erie. Her results show that parts of Erie contain two to three times more pieces of floating plastic than scientist have seen in any other major body of water on earth.
Mason says she had expected to see broken fragments from plastic items left on the beach. “and instead we found a really high counts in our smallest category of plastics that are categorized as microplastics. Plastics that have a diameter from 1/3 mm up to 1 mm.“
She thinks many of these microplastics particles in Lake Erie have a common source - “While you can’t directly pinpoint they’re very similar to the microbeads that you find in many common consumer products.” In other words, facial scrubs that contain polyethylene beads as the exfoliant. “They have a very size, very similar chemical composition, similar texture to them.”
5 Gyres Institute studies Great Lakes pollution
Marcus Eriksen was part of Mason’s Lake Erie sampling crew. He’s also director of the 5 Gyres Institute. Eriksen has logged 40,000 miles sailing the oceans documenting the extent of plastic pollution trapped in five huge spirals, or ‘gyres’, including monitoring the well-publicized North Pacific garbage patch. Eriksen estimates that, "about 21% of the planet’s surface is covered in this soup, this thin soup of microplastic, heavily degraded plastic particles.”
Eriksen is concerned about plastic pollution from the Great Lakes heading into the Atlantic, and the damage microplastics can cause to Lake Erie’s ecosystem. He says these particles are so small, they’re round, "and they resemble fish eggs and these plastics may be being ingested by fish.”
Microbeads down the drain and into the Great Lakes
Eriksen and Mason believe that microplastic beads in facial scrubs are making their way through wastewater treatment plants into the rivers and eventually the Great Lakes. Mason says 35 million people live in the Great Lakes water sheds and many live upstream.
“You’re not only getting the plastics from the people who surround Lake Erie, but you’re also getting all the plastics that flowed from Lake Superior and Lake Huron into Lake Erie, so you have this kind of additive or accumulative effect.”
Sherri Mason is heading back out to Lake Erie next month to continue sampling the water for floating plastic particles. Her team is also studying whether these plastics concentrate pollutants and how these toxins leach out into fish. Part of her funding comes from the Burning River Foundation in Cleveland.