A Brief History on Our Understanding of Plastic Pollution
Beach cleanups, like the June 10th event being hosted by Parks Canada on Nipigon Bay, are only part of the picture. Preventing plastic pollution before it even gets to our lakes, rivers and waterways is critical, if we eventually hope to eradicate this issue. All of us will need to drastically reduce and manage our use of plastics, if we ever hope to come close to success.
On Earth Day our focus was plastic pollution. General awareness around this problem has only started to develop in recent years. Concerns over plastic pollution started to become widespread in the early 2000s when people heard about the “Toxic Garbage Islands” in the oceans, like the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” reported to be up to twice the size of Texas.
When picturing the plastic problem, many of us may have imagined giant plastic islands of garbage floating as a solid mass in the oceans gyres, large systems of rotating ocean currents. This made it easy to assume that plastic simply flowed from lands, lakes and rivers into the ocean… and stayed there, far away from us. Recent Studies show that the reality is much worse.
Realities of Plastic Pollution
First, alarms were raised about microplastics, tiny particles not readily visible with the naked eye. We couldn’t just assume that these stayed in the “garbage patch”; they were small enough to be ingested by ocean animals and travel through the food chain. It would be naive to think that all of this plastic doesn’t also pollute land, inland seas, lakes and rivers.
Plastic has been found in agricultural soil deposited through municipal compost. The “Garbage Islands” mentioned earlier are more like garbage stews; floating plastic is highly concentrated in those gyres, but it is often below the surface, and constantly moving with wind and water currents. The Great Lakes also house concentrated zones of plastic debris dictated by their currents and, according to the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Great Lakes beaches were found to have one of the greatest concentration of plastics of all national park beaches sampled in a study with the National Parks Service and Clemson University.
Microplastics in The Great Lakes
The first Scientific Research done on plastics in the Great Lakes began in 2012. Since then, plastic has been found in abundance in all of the Great Lakes and their tributaries. InfoSuperior participated in a Parks Canada cleanup of plastic nurdles on the shores of Nipigon Bay in 2017, collecting nearly 200,000 nurdles, which entered the environment when a CP Rail train car derailed in January 2008. Despite this cleanup, and extensive cleanups by CP rail, the Nurdles persist on Nipigon Bay beaches and have been reported on Wawa Beaches and on Long Beach in Michipicoten Bay.
Nurdles are fairly large “microplastics”, but plastic is present in water as particles and fibers that can only be seen with a microscope, making their way into soil, seas, lakes and rivers. Beers made using water from Lake Superior, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron were all found to be contaminated with microplastics in a recent open source peer-reviewed study by Mary Kosuth, Sherri A. Mason, and Elizabeth V. Wattenberg. Manual cleanups simply can not capture all of these plastic contaminants due to their very small size.
Cleanup Can’t be our Only Action Against Plastic
Cleanups are important for collecting data on the distribution of plastic around the world. Now that we know both macro and micro plastics contaminate every part of the Earth, plastic must be considered as a more global contaminant than we previously thought. Many groups, organizations, and individuals are passionate about eliminating plastic pollution for good through innovative packaging and plastic alternatives, refusal of single-use plastics, changing legislation and banning the use of exceptionally dangerous plastic products like polystyrene and microbeads. Solving this global issue will take more than cleaning up the mess we have made so far, we need to make some major changes.