Plastic Pollution in Lake Erie

by Matt Stansberry

Dr. Sherri A. Mason is Professor of Chemistry and Chair of the Department of Geology & Environmental Sciences at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Her research team has conducted a survey for plastic pollution and have found plastic particles within all five of the Great Lakes. The counts obtained, especially those within Lakes Erie and Ontario, rival those within the most polluted parts of the world’s oceans.

These plastics are contaminating our ecosystem from the bottom of the aquatic food chain to the top. The direct impacts will kill prey species and wreak having on the ecosystem, but the indirect impacts of plastic pollutants bio-accumulate and magnify.

Study and restoration for the Great Lakes will be cut dramatically (97%) under the current Trump Administration budget proposals.


Find out how this pollution happening, and what we can do to stop it in the following Q&A:

How did you get started studying plastics in the Great Lakes?

Mason: When people first heard about plastics in the oceans, I think they thought about freighters and shipping containers. Most famously, the shipment of 28,000 plastic bath toys lost at sea in 1992. Twenty-five years later people are still finding these rubber ducks all over the world, an unintended experiment on how waste is transported.

So when people thought about oceanic plastics, people thought of it as a shipping problem. Then in 2004, a United Nations report found that 80% of plastics we find in the world’s ocean comes from the land, not shipping containers.

Basically, the plastic comes from us. Most people don’t live directly on the oceans, but rather freshwater systems, rivers and streams. The story we’ve been telling since 2004 is that plastics are making their way through freshwater systems. I’m fortunate that I live on the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world, my study area happens to be iconic and important.

Looking at your data, it seems that as you move from west to east in the Great Lakes, the plastic counts increase – is that due to the water flow in the system?

Mason: The currents carry the plastic and it flows with the water. What you find in Lake Erie isn’t just what has been discharged in Lake Erie, but also what flows in from Lake Huron. It’s an additive effect. The counts increase from Superior, to Huron to Michigan, to Erie to Ontario.

The hotspots change seasonally as the current moves plastic through the system. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is always in the same location because the oceanic currents are more constant, but the Great Lakes currents change pretty dramatically through the seasons of the year. One particular area in May wouldn’t have as high of counts as if you sampled that same spot in July.

Microbeads – the abrasive little nodules you find in some toiletry products – seem to be a point of focus for plastic pollution conversations. But I have to imagine that by mass, they’re not that big a percentage of the waste. Why do they seem to be so prominent in these discussions?

Mason: The reason is because it was almost the first time we could pinpoint a source for a particular type of plastic. As I’ve given talks on plastic pollution, I’ve always thought it was important to point out that microbeads are a fraction of the plastic (15%), but it’s a significant fraction. Fifteen percent is nothing to shake a stick at, but it still means 85% is other stuff.

That said, we should ban microbeads; its easy as their presence in these products was so nonsensical. For example, in toothpaste the abrasives actually separate the gums from the tooth, promoting gingivitis and serving as a detriment to the health. It was a very easy thing to ban microbeads. I haven’t met a single person who said, “No I want plastic in my face wash.”

But it was just the first step to raise the discussion on plastic pollution. Ultimately, we need to rethink our whole relationship with this material. The other 85% of plastic in the Great Lakes is cigarette butts, plastic lighters, food wrappers, plastic bags, flip flops, plastic pails that kids take down to the beach. There are millions of ways plastic pervades our lives and most of it is single use, disposable items.

Should we be making something we will use for minutes or even seconds out of a material that will last five generations? A water bottle will still be here in 500 years after I use it for five minutes.

We just didn’t have that awareness when the material was developed. During my grandparents’ age, our culture was focused on reusing and fixing things. Nothing was considered disposable. After World War Two, all of that changed. Now you buy $5 plastic lawn chairs that you know will break by the end of the year, but who cares? You’ll buy them next year. Every year in a college town, as the school year ends, the streets are littered with broken plastic lawn chairs. The students will buy a whole new set next year.

I’m feeling a little sick thinking about that compounding lifecycle of plastic garbage. What do you think we can do?

Mason: Banning the use of plastic bags, or at least imposing a fee on them. I’m a big proponent of the fees. A big reason we have a disposable society is that we’ve externalized the environmental cost of our decisions. At the grocery store, if you buy a packet of gum, they will throw it in a plastic bag. Plastic bags clog storm drains, they get in the works of recycling equipment, there are so many environmental costs associated with these things. Nobody likes to see trees covered in plastic bags. There are real costs associated with dealing with plastic bags but that cost is not directly experienced.

So what if we charged 10-cents, increasing the charge for plastic bags it 25-cents over time? Now what if we applied that same mentality to not just plastic bags, but to disposable coffee cups as well?

People are much more responsive to taxes than price reductions. Ten cents off isn’t a good impetus for me to bring my own coffee mug to Starbucks. But if you charge me an extra 10 cents, it’ll change my behavior. I’m a big fan of raising incremental cost to dramatically decrease plastic use.

What else do we need to watch out for?

Mason: Microfibers are a big issue right now. Now that microbeads have been banned, it’s become the next topic. Here in the north we love our fleece — polyester, nylon. When we wash each garment of synthetic material, one wash releases 1,900 fibers at a minimum, per wash, per garment. Say you’ve got a family of four and you’re washing their fleece…

There are some solutions proposed – like having a filter like a lint screen on your washing machine instead of just on the dryer. The Rozalia Project is working on a ball that you throw in your washing machine so that the fibers stick to it.

Isn’t this stuff being treated by municipal wastewater systems?

Mason: Wastewater goes through a screen, but the mesh size is quite large. It’s designed to catch Barbie dolls, twenty dollar bills, wedding rings. Then the wastewater goes through a digestion process where bacteria feeds on the pee and poop. These bacteria feed on it, and decrease the nutrients, and then it goes through a settling process and so the stuff on the bottom is pulled out, and then it continues to flow, treated with chlorine to sterilize it, and there it’s released into the watersheds. Some of the microfibers are removed in the settling period, but each waste water treatment plant is releasing over 4 million pieces of plastic per day, 365 days per year. There are 15,000 waste water treatment plants in the United States.

All of this sounds horrible. But let’s talk about what my audience cares about – fish. How does this plastic impact the ecosystems?

Mason: The very base of the food chain is made up of planktonic filter feeders. Quagga mussels are filter feeders and ingest whatever is in the water. Round gobies eat the quagga mussels and are then eaten by larger fish. There is a recent video of a zooplankton eating fluorescent microbeads and microfibers. You can see in the video, the plastic takes up the full intestinal tract of the zooplankton. The plastic is bioaccumulating and multiplying. A small fish is going to eat thousands of zooplankton, a medium fish is eating thousands of small fish, and so on.

Sounds gross. What’s the ecosystem impact beyond constipated plankton?

Mason: We’re too early in these studies. We completed our first study of plastics in freshwater systems in 2012. We’re very early in the process and takes years just to see money devoted to plastic pollution research. Most of the Great Lakes Sea Grant agencies have this as part of their proposals now, but it took us 3-4 years to get here, and this is at the same time as the Trump administration is proposing the complete elimination of Sea Grant.

I didn’t get paid for any of the work we did on this for the first three years. Being on the front line of anything like this, that’s what you have to do – establish that it’s an issue before it starts making its way to proposals like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which is proposed to take a 97% budget reduction under this current administration.

We’ve got multiple lawmakers in Ohio with single-digit ratings from the League of Conservation Voters who are standing up to Trump cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. So I really hope the cuts don’t come to pass. That said, what do we know from other studies?

Mason: Oceanic studies are fifteen years ahead of us. What they see are two different groups of effects.

There are direct effects: If a sea turtle eats a plastic bag, it stops eating, can’t get nutrients and starves to death. A goose-beaked whale that beached on a Norwegian shore had to be euthanized because it was so sick from 30 plastic bags and other garbage packed in its stomach.

But the indirect effects of plastics are more subtle. Microplastics are pieces smaller than one millimeter, the size of a grain of sand or sugar. Those aren’t going to kill things when they’re ingested. But there are indirect effects. The concern with microplastics is that they absorb chemicals on their surface.

The Great Lakes is infamous for it industrial heritage. We have these legacy pollutants in the water like PCBs, we have pesticides and herbicides that run off from agricultural sources, we have suburban dads spraying roundup on their grass to kill dandelions. Every body of water has this suite of persistent, bioaccumalative compounds. While these chemicals are in water, they don’t want to be water. They’re hydrophobic – meaning water-fearing. They’ll stick to pieces of plastic. When the plastic is ingested, they desorb and go into the fatty tissues of an organism.

These chemicals affect fish’s ability to breed and their mobility. A variety of these chemicals act to effeminize male fish, chemically castrate them or changing their sex.

Chemically compromised fish might stop swimming from predators. Which then means that this fish contaminated with of all these chemicals, is carrying them into the other bigger fish, which you then bring home and feed your family.

Kendrick Chittock