Why the Great Lakes Need Comprehensive Solutions to Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is destroying our Great Lakes—and our health

October 17, 2022

Sofia Johansson headshot.

This post is by Sofia Johansson, who worked as the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Public Policy and Governance Intern this summer. She is a third-year Environmental and Urban Studies major at the University of Chicago and is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. She is passionate about environmental justice, equity, and sustainability in planning and policy.

For more than 30 years, thousands of Adopt-A-Beach volunteers have helped clean up litter, most of it plastic, from beaches across the Great Lakes region. This year, the program reached a major milestone—half a million pounds of litter picked up since volunteers started collecting beach data nearly 20 years ago. But beach cleanups alone can’t solve the magnitude of the Great Lakes’ plastic problem. A more systemic solution is required.

Plastic has been found in Great Lakes fish dating back to the 1950s. That means, for nearly seven decades, there have been microplastics in our water—water we drink, swim in, fish from, and cherish. Most of that time, we didn’t know it was there. But now, the research is overwhelming. The amount of microplastics in the surface water of the Great Lakes is estimated at 1.2 million particles/km2. This is higher than plastic concentrations in the widely publicized Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moreover, researchers estimate that over 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes annually. That is an exorbitantly high amount of plastic, so why are we letting it continue?

The politics of plastic

The reasons often trace back to the political power of the plastic industry. They have focused on the individual responsibility of consumers rather than changes in industry practices. They also try to limit legislative action to measures promoting recycling, even though the US recycled less than 6% of its plastic waste in 2021, and recycling is considered an ineffective reducer of plastic pollution. But they do this to absolve industry of any responsibility and to make us think that individuals are responsible for plastic pollution as opposed to the plastic industry itself, which has promoted the use of plastics in almost every facet of our lives.

As such, the plastics lobby has repeatedly challenged legislation that creates meaningful systemic changes, such as single-use plastic bans, reductions in production, and extended producer responsibility.

Therefore, the Great Lakes states and the federal government have seriously lagged in plastic pollution policy. Five of the eight states have preemption laws, often called “bans on bans,” that prevent any level of local government from passing legislation to reduce plastic pollution. The plastics lobby has worked with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to develop a model preemptive bill for states to pass. And Congress has passed little legislation to deal with the scope of the problem.

What’s at stake?

But what’s at stake? What happens if we continue letting corporate interests and financial gain pollute our water? The Great Lakes are home to thousands of species, provide drinking water for 10% of Americans (and 25% of Canadians), and support a multi-trillion-dollar economy. Beyond the numbers, the Great Lakes are fundamental to the life and health of the Midwest.

Human health is a serious concern regarding plastics in our lakes. Though research is just beginning, microplastics have been found in Great Lakes tap water, beer, fish, and dozens of other consumables across the globe. Data compiled from several studies indicate that humans may ingest up to 5 grams of plastic a week, equivalent to the mass of a credit card. Researchers suggest most of the plastic humans ingest may come from drinking water and have detected plastic in our blood, lungs, hair, saliva, and stool.

The smaller the plastic, the more dangerous. Once in the body, microplastics may translocate, cross cell membranes, permeate tissue, and linger in human organs, potentially causing chronic inflammation. They also leach dangerous chemicals and toxins, such as phthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and bisphenol A (BPA). These and other chemicals have been found in the water and microplastics of the Great Lakes. They are carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). EDCs, which disrupt hormones and can cause metabolic changes, have been heavily linked to a long list of health issues, including diabetes, neurological diseases, many different cancers, and reproductive damage. In short, microplastics, which have been allowed to increase and accumulate in our water, could have devastating impacts on our health and the health of future generations.

Federal action is needed

Given that states are not dealing with this problem and local governments sometimes find their hands tied, it is imperative that the federal government take comprehensive action that puts the responsibility on the producer to truly reduce plastic pollution, protect Great Lakes ecosystems, and ensure our health. An essential first step at the national level is passing the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, introduced by Sen. Durbin of Illinois, which prohibits the discharge of plastic pellets and other pre-production plastic materials into our water from any point source. These pellets are commonly found on Great Lakes beaches. In addition to this first step, more is required to deal with the magnitude of the problem in a comprehensive fashion. Congress should also pass the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which creates a national extended producer responsibility program, phases out single-use plastic products, and targets microplastics in the environment, along with many other comprehensive measures.

Plastic pollution is a growing threat to our environment and our health and will continue to be until Congress takes comprehensive action to address this problem. The time to act on this is now.

Tell Congress: Keep Plastic “Nurdles” Out of the Great Lakes

“Nurdles” are tiny plastic pellets used as a raw material in the manufacture of plastic products. Researchers have found them on beaches in all 5 Great Lakes.

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