McDonald's Corp. straws and Dart Container Corp.'s plastic cups aren't the only petroleum-based materials winding up in the sediment of Great Lakes beaches and the stomachs of fish and waterfowl.
Some plastic doesn't even get to its intended use.
The tiny pre-production plastic pellets — known as nurdles —roughly the size of rice grains and used in manufacturing those consumer products are commonly found in the lakes.
That's drawn the attention of environmental groups and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who is leading an effort in Congress to make the EPA prohibit plastic manufacturers from discharging plastic pellets into lakes, rivers and streams. Durbin's bill would empower the EPA to set regulations and penalties.
Because of how small the pellets are, where they came from before ending up in the lakes is impossible to track, unlike a distinctive red Solo cup manufactured by Mason, Mich.-based Dart.
But scientists who have studied plastic pellet pollution in the Great Lakes say the pellets typically originate from a plastics refinery, manufacturing plant or somewhere in the transportation between the two facilities.
The pellets may be spilled on site and get washed into a drain basin, eventually making their way into the streams, rivers and lakes that feed Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, St. Clair and Superior, said Sherri Mason, the sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend whose research focuses on Great Lakes plastic pollution.
In Erie, Pa., alone, there are a dozen plastics manufacturers that get resin pellets shipped in by train cars, Mason said.
"Along the way, as they're transferred from one container to another, these pellets get lost," she said.
Mason said she has found plastic pellets in the parking lot of Presque Isle, a Pennsylvania state park on a sandy peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie.
"Why the heck are they in a parking lot at Presque Isle?" Mason asked. "They probably got washed from the lake during a storm surge ... into the parking lot. It's crazy."
Legislation seeking to impose some regulations and penalties on plastics producers for polluting freshwaters with plastic pellets is starting to gain steam in Congress.
The $715 billion infrastructure bill that the U.S. House passed on July 1 includes language requiring the EPA to write national rules prohibiting the discharge of plastic pellets — mirroring Durbin's Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act in the Senate.
"The Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act is an important step in addressing the plastic problem that is plaguing our beloved Lake Michigan and the first of several steps I plan to take this year to improve the Great Lakes and the surrounding communities," Durbin said in a statement.
The Plastics Industry Association opposes Durbin's bill.
"We are concerned that, as written, a provision within this legislation opens the door to regulatory overreach that could subject countless small plastics operations across America to heavy-handed federal enforcement," said George O'Connor, spokesman for the Plastics Industry Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.