2018-03-08 / Life in Leelanau

Plastic waste plagues Lake Michigan

An update on microplastics and their effect on the big lake
By Jen Murphy
Of The Enterprise staff


JOANIE WOODS of Lake Leelanau collects trash from the shores of Good Harbor Bay almost daily. She holds just one of the bags of trash she has collected. JOANIE WOODS of Lake Leelanau collects trash from the shores of Good Harbor Bay almost daily. She holds just one of the bags of trash she has collected. Plastics are a problem.

Especially microplastics.

Looking out at the beautiful bright blue waters across the 100 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline in Leelanau County, it may be surprising to discover that half of the plastic dumped into Great Lakes — 11 million pounds annually — goes into Lake Michigan, according to the Ecowatch website.

Julie Christian, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore chief of natural resources, is particularly concerned with microplastics, the small particles of plastic that remain after larger items such as straws and bottles break apart in the water.

“There are lots of microplastics in products like face wash that have small plastic beads that come into the lake through municipal wastewater,” Christian said.

Another source of plastic pollution comes from clothing. Microfibers are released from clothing made of materials like nylon, spandex and polyester as they go through the spin cycle in a washing machine.

Christian said the Lakeshore is participating in a study to determine the effects of microplastics on the park’s waters.

“Right now, the preliminary results indicate that there are 150 pieces (of plastic) per kilogram of sand,” she said. “That’s on the higher end of the Great Lakes parks. ... I think the preliminary results are a bit surprising and we need to look at options.”

The data reported by Ecowatch confirms Christian’s concerns.

Like oceans, much of what remains as floating trash in the Great Lakes consists of microplastics, which are consumed by fish and enter the food chain, the website reports. Plastic pollution in Lake Michigan is about the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles dumped into the lake every year.

Jeanie Williams, Inland Seas Education Association lead scientist and education specialist, said the microplastics found in Lake Michigan waters are different than those in the ocean.

“Plastics we find here are much smaller,” Williams said. “One hypothesis is that there is a higher shoreline to water ratio (than the ocean).”

Those smaller plastic pieces are available to all creatures, she said.

“What does it mean when snails and mussels and plankton, and fish, when they all have plastics in their bodies?” she asked. “We don’t know.”

Williams said we do know that access is not without effect.

“There is concern that there are toxins in the plastic, and that causes stress,” she said. “It doesn’t mean everything is dying, but no one can say there is no effect.”

Lake Leelanau resident Joanie Woods sees plastic washed up on the sandy shores by her home.

Woods lives on Good Harbor Bay and walks just under a mile each day collecting trash, the majority of it being plastics.

“I think what people forget is that the plastic breaks apart, but it never goes away,” Woods said. “We are all going to absorb it by eating, drinking or breathing.”

In her clean-up efforts, she said she regularly finds balloons, straws, bottle caps, plastic pots, cigar tips and more.

She’s tired of it.

“I just want people to be more aware of where stuff is going,” Woods said. “I want other people to start picking up their trash. People walk by stuff like it’s OK for it to be there. It’s not.

“Pick up behind yourself. I don’t want my grandkids, or anyone else’s, to go to the beach and have it be a trash pile. We live in this beautiful place.”

One idea Woods has for a solution is based on a beach she visited in the past. The beach had a plastic bag dispenser and a sign welcoming people to clean up the beach.

“What does it take to get people to not leave garbage on the beach?” Woods asked. “I don’t know. Teaching your children to pick up after themselves? ... I think we need to ask people to leave their footprints and take everything else with them.”

Christian echoes this sentiment.

“Pack in and pack out anything you bring,” she said. “That’s standard practice.”

She said the Lakeshore staff, along with “citizen scientists” who track avian diseases, always carry bags with them to pick up trash along the beach.

“We encourage staff and other project managers to pick up trash,” Christian said. “And the general public as well.”

What do other people do when they see Woods on the beach pick up other people’s trash?

“Sometimes people will say thank you, but mostly they just walk by,” she said. “I realize it’s a losing battle, but I figure I can clean up a bit and make things a bit cleaner.”

Williams contends cleanup efforts are not in vain.

“I think everything you pick up does make a difference — it’s just that much less that’s out there,” she said. “It creates an attitude of care. You are demonstrating for others. If you collect, you may inspire someone else to collect.”

The other side of the equation, Williams said, is not adding more plastic to the problem.

“The amount of plastic in the lake is finite, unless we keep adding to it,” she said. “We have to look at all the actions we take because it all has ripple effects.”

Among other things, Williams said there are three actions for anyone to take to make an impact on keeping our waters clean.

First, clean up. That means bringing a bag to the beach. Second, stop using single-use items. Last, speak out.

“Speak out about what matters to you,” she said. “Communicate to community leaders about what you care about.”

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