Researchers have found a plastics litter problem in the Great Lakes that they say is just as bad as the mess in the ocean. And waterfront communities could spend $486 million per year if they want to clean it up.
The Ecohydrology Research Group based in Waterloo, Ontario, said some surface areas of the Great Lakes have about the same concentration of plastic litter as that reported in oceanic gyres, where currents interact and trap litter in persistent, swirling regions.
Plastic litter ranges from tiny microbeads present in cosmetics to chunks derived from recreational activities. The litter can damage ecosystems when fish and other organisms ingest the particles, and it can have economic consequences for fisheries and communities that rely on boating and beach recreations. Polyethylene and polypropylene particles tend to float because they are less dense than water but most other plastics sink and are not an obvious problem. Surveys of the Great Lakes show concentrations of plastic particles on the surface are at about the same order of magnitude as in oceanic gyres which contain up to three particles per 10 square yards on average.
“We should focus on prevention,” stressed Olga Lyandres, research manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, which collected some of the data used by the Ecohydrology group but was not directly involved in their study.
“We should look at our own, individual actions,” Lyandres said in a phone interview. “Litter is pretty difficult to remove once it gets into the water.”
The researchers based their cleanup cost estimate on what it has actually cost to do similar remediation at oceanic beachfronts. The estimate addresses floating litter — the distribution of plastic litter on lake bottoms is essentially unknown. Typically, more than 80 percent of human-generated litter on a beach is composed of plastics, the researchers point out.
Lyandres said so far most of the fight against water-borne litter has been done through local ordinances and broad-based measures such as plastic bag bans.
Canada and the United States share the Great Lakes, and their boundary runs through the lakes. The International Joint Commission is a bi-national organization established in 1909 to ensure water quality in the region. The cities and towns contiguous to the Great Lakes account for about a third of the economic activity between the two countries, according to calculations by investment banker BMO Capital Markets. Last year the region generated about $5.8 trillion in economic output.
The Ecohydrology group is part of the University of Waterloo's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Their work was published online by the Journal of Great Lakes Research on Jan. 29.