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New study reveals impact of plastic pollution on Great Lakes

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"Plastic Ocean" by Kevin Krejci is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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There’s been a lot of news about the amount of plastic debris in the oceans. But, plastic pollution is also affecting the Great Lakes. One study out of the Rochester Institute of Technology estimates 22 million pounds of plastic debris enters the Great Lakes from the U.S. and Canada each year.

It’s windy and chilly as volunteers are picking up trash along and area of Lake Michigan north of Muskegon.

Lynn Knopf is the chair of Duck Creek Watershed Assembly and is leading this event. She says the bulk of the trash is plastic and much of it is deteriorating.

“It just crumbles into little, little tiny pieces and eventually it just becomes almost impossible to pick up,” said Knopf 

This clean-up is part of the Alliance for the Great Lakes Adopt-a-Beach program which organizes these events across the Great Lakes.

“And consistently, we see that about 85 percent of the litter picked up at Adopt Beach cleanups is made up of plastic.”

That’s Jennifer Caddick. She’s the spokesperson for the Alliance.

At Duck Lake, I saw thousands of pieces of plastic ranging from shopping bags, to plastic forks and spoons and drinking straws. There were also lots of unidentifiable bits of plastic in the water and on the shore.

“We know that plastic pollution never goes away," Caddick says. "Right. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.”

Not only is it unsightly trash on Great Lakes beaches but the plastic can hurt wildlife.

Sarah Lowe is the Great Lakes regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program.

“There's definitely a lot of wildlife rescue centers that repeatedly get calls for wildlife that may be entangled in fishing line or plastic rings, but for the small stuff, the micro plastic debris, the primary focus there has been on the wildlife eating the micro plastic debris,” said Lowe.

And scientists are finding some plastic is becoming part of the fish.

Mary Kosuth is a research student at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and Environment Health Sciences.

“As our research methods become more sophisticated, we're able to look at smaller and smaller size ranges and we're finding that they're more abundant on the smaller scale,” says Kosuth.

Researchers are finding plastic microfibers so small, they’re actually in the tissue, the flesh of fish. That means people are eating it too. It’s not the only way you’re ingesting plastics.

Kosuth’s own research sampled tap water in several cities in the Great Lakes Region and also sampled beer. She found plastic fibers in both the water and the beer. But something was off. In some cases she found greater amounts of microfibers in the Great Lakes beer than in the water used to make it.

“And found no correlation between the amount that was in the tap water and the amount that was in the beer from, say, the same cities,” Kosuth said.

What Kosuth didn’t realize is that a lot of grain used by brewers comes in bags made of woven threads of polypropolene, a strong plastic.

At Griffn Claw’s brewery in Rochester Hills, the head brewmaster and head distiller Dan Rogers hadn’t heard about plastic in the water or the beer. I asked him if it made any sense to suspect the bags used to ship grain.

“Yes, it does a lot of these malts are put in woven bags, it's like a fabric almost. And some of the bags we have, they’re paper, but on the inside, there's a plastic liner for like a moisture barrier," said Rogers. "So, I would say all this grain touches plastic.”

He said he’d start investigating to see what could or should be done at his brewhouse.

As for tap water, treatment plants are not yet set up to filter out all these microscopic threads of plastic.

Single use plastics are pervasive. Some, such as medical devices, are necessary. Plastic packaging is used to prevent retail theft. Some fleeces and other clothing are made of plastic and shed microfibers.

Lynn Knopf stopped picking up trash at Duck Lake State Park for a bit to talk about the problem. Since seeing the mess on the beaches first hand, she’s dedicated to cleaning up what she can and thinking before she buys things.

“You know, it's something each person has to really look at themselves and decide what the best thing is they can do, but, you know, it all comes down to education and, you know, wanting to make the world a better place, I think,” says Knopf .

But, some environmentalists say manufacturers are going to continue to make and sell single use plastics as long as there’s a market. They want people to pressure businesses that make single-use plastic products. They insist we have to find ways prevent those millions of pounds of plastic getting into the Great Lakes and your water… and… your beer.