2017-08-17 / Life in Leelanau

BEACH CLEANUP

Microplastics a cause for concern in Lake Michigan, Leelanau County beaches
By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff


ADOPT-A-BEACH volunteers contribute to efforts to keep Leelanau County beaches free of trash. A pair of busy beaches in Leland, South Beach and Van’s Beach, are pictured on Tuesday afternoon. ADOPT-A-BEACH volunteers contribute to efforts to keep Leelanau County beaches free of trash. A pair of busy beaches in Leland, South Beach and Van’s Beach, are pictured on Tuesday afternoon. Each year about 5,300 metric tons of plastic end up in Lake Michigan, according to a study by the Rochester Institute of Technology.

That much non-biodegradable debris, the study says, is equivalent to 100 Olympic-sized pools filled with plastic bottles.

Those bottles and other plastics break up and become microplastics, which are defined as pieces smaller than a pencil eraser.

The study of microplastics in the Great Lakes is a relatively new field that is fueled in part by the increase in the use of plastic water bottles, said Jeanie Williams, lead scientist and education specialist with Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA) in Suttons Bay.

“You probably wouldn’t notice microplastics, especially in the water,” Williams said. “But people are starting to notice them on the beach, especially in the last couple of years.”


THIS PHOTO shows some of the different types of microplastics found in the Grand Traverse Bay watershed last year. A ‘microplastic’ is defined as a plastic particle smaller than a pencil eraser. THIS PHOTO shows some of the different types of microplastics found in the Grand Traverse Bay watershed last year. A ‘microplastic’ is defined as a plastic particle smaller than a pencil eraser. A study done in 2013 by State University of New York at Fredonia showed that 17,000 microparticles of plastic per square kilometer were found in Lake Michigan; 46,000 microparticles per square kilometer in Lake Erie; and 230,000 in Lake Ontario.

Inland Seas collects water samples several times a month that that are sent off for analysis in order to get a baseline of just how much plastic is in the Grand Traverse Bay watershed.

“We’re trying to get an idea of how the concentration of microplastics changes over time,” Williams said.

There have been some snapshots, like the one done in 2013. But it should be looked at every year, she said.

Williams said plastic moves with the water, down streams, into rivers and into the lake. While it may be hard to believe that some people throw their empty bottles out a car window or into the woods, it does happen, she said.

But there are lots of people who don’t, as well as those who regularly collect trash off area beaches.

“As a group, our beach-users are really responsible,” said Susan Och, who has been coordinating volunteers to clean up Van’s Beach for about five years.

Och’s work is part of the Adopt-a- Beach campaign through the Alliance for the Great Lakes, with groups across the area doing the clean-up twice a year in April and September.

Volunteers also keep track of every bit of trash they pick up, working in groups of two, with one picking up the garbage and the other taking an inventory.

Och said the most unusual items she has ever found were a pair of women’s panties and a bouquet of flowers lying next to each other on a dune at Van’s Beach. She recently found a net that came off the bow of a tug. She didn’t know what it was, but Russell Dzuba, Leland Township’s harbor master, identified the net.

Mylar balloons are also a frequent find, as what goes up must come down, Och said. Broken balloons not only litter beaches, they can choke animals that try to eat them.

Every scrap of trash picked up during beach clean-up is listed under one of 42 categories that include cigarette butts, fishing buoys, balloons, plastic grocery bags and diapers.

The trash is then weighed and the list is sent online to the Alliance, where it is kept in a large data base that tracks trends, Och said.

“That way if a category suddenly balloons up or you start seeing stuff that you’ve never seen before, they can look and see if other people are seeing it on their beaches,” Och said. “It’s collecting clues for potential detective work. You need the baseline in order to know if there’s something unusual.”

Studies have found microplastics in every single species, from the tiniest plankton to humans, according to ISEA’s Williams. The long-term impact of all that micoplastic is the focus of many studies now being done.

For example, Williams said, plank- ton can fill up on microplastics and not eat food, which can make them smaller and unable to reproduce. That will have a far-reaching effect on those fish that feed on plankton. In an environment that is already full of pollutants, it’s just one more stress on them, Williams said.

“The effects are subtle, but not benign,” she said.

Plastic is also full of chemicals — many of which are toxic — that leach out. And just like your plastic Tupperware bowl absorbs your spaghetti sauce, plastics suck in DDT, PCBs and other toxins.

Finally, that plastic is also very hard to clean up and remove.

“How do you separate plastic from sand? It’s very difficult, if not impossible,” Williams said. “We just need to work backwards and keep it out of there in the first place.”

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