Swimming in plastic

Great Lakes microplastics pollution is showing up in fish, birds — and your beer glass

Stephen J. Serio video

This Crain’s project on the emerging threat of microplastics pollution in the Great Lakes is a joint project of the newsrooms of Crain’s Chicago Business and Crain's Detroit Business.

They’re in your microbrew. They’re in your tap water.

They end up in the bellies of your lake trout. They get between your toes as you scramble up and slide down shoreline dunes.

They’re microplastics. They are getting into your body.

And they’re coming from a source that’s a lot closer to home than you think.

We’ve all seen images of floating islands of plastic in the Caribbean and Pacific.

What most of us have managed to avoid thinking about, however, is this: Plastic waste also is a serious problem in the Great Lakes Basin, the source of drinking water for 40 million people in the U.S. and Canada.

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“In the mid-1900s, plastic became an integral component of human cultures and commerce globally” and accounted for 50 to 80 percent of waste on beaches and in the ocean, according to a study of microplastics in fish.

The long life and durability of plastics make them useful for consumers, but the slow rate at which they degrade also means their adverse environmental effects are long-lasting.

Stephen J. Serio

A beachgoer discards a plastic bottle in a recycling bin at Silver Beach County Park on Lake Michigan in St. Joseph, Mich.

Plastics don’t dissolve easily in water and can absorb nasty chemicals from the environment, some of them toxic or carcinogenic.

They absorb bacteria and metals, can be toxic to human cells, transport invasive species, block animals' digestive tracts and reduce the ability of wildlife to forage for food.

That's why microplastics, which are less than 5 mm or 0.2 inches in diameter, are considered a contaminant of emerging concern.

Microplastics originate from fibers released during clothes washing and from industrial waste, landfills, pollution, spills, synthetic textiles, tires and abrasive cleaning particles. Other sources include fragments of such litter as plastic bags, cigarette filters, Styrofoam containers and abandoned fishing line.

Stormwater runoff, treated sewage sludge and effluent from wastewater treatment plants channel them into tributaries that, in turn, feed them into the lakes, where water circulation patterns move them around. Some particles get deposited into lake sediment. Waves move particles to the shore, where winds can disperse them onto land, including onto coastal sand dunes.

"It's inescapable that things are getting worse," said Sherri Mason, who as a chemistry professor at State University of New York at Fredonia, sampled water in all five Great Lakes.

Fish studies and cores of lake sediment show an "exponential increase in the amount of microparticles" compared with before 1950, said Mason, who is now the sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the problem due to the disposal of plastic gloves, plastic masks and takeout meals packaged in foam plastic, according to Mason, who said that under such dire circumstances, "all of the concerns about plastic pollution go out the window."

Microplastics are appearing in a disturbingly wide range of places in the Great Lakes Basin.

Many sources of pollution

Lake Michigan has more plastic debris than any of the other Great Lakes, and its west-to-east water currents bring much of the waste eastward from the Chicago area to the lake's Michigan coast. That's nothing new. In 1988, for example, officials closed six public beaches in West Michigan for health reasons as syringes, pill bottles and other plastic materials washed ashore.

For the past 26 years, the Ludington-based educational environmental group AFFEW (A Few Friends for the Environment of the World) has conducted beach sweeps three or four times annually, including one on May 19 that drew about 25 volunteers to the city's Stearns Park.

"There was lots of plastic," said AFFEW president Julia Chambers, including cigarette filters, disposable diapers and Band-Aids. In recent years, cigar tips have become more common, while plastic-film balloons have become less common, possibly because of increased public awareness that they're a plastic pollution source.

"Over the past couple of years, there's been a lot more debris because of higher water levels eating away at the foredune," said Jim Gallie, superintendent of Ludington State Park. "The rising water is exposing a lot of older plastic objects that had been buried in sand for years, even decades."

Matt Hoffman, an associate professor in the College of Science at Rochester Institute of Technology, and one of his colleagues model Great Lakes currents, estimating that about 10,000 tons of plastic enter the lakes annually.

GREAT LAKES TRASH FLOW: These maps project how floating trash moves within Lake Michigan and Lake Erie over time.

On Lake Erie alone, hundreds of tons of plastic end up on the surface and hundreds more tons end up on the bottom each year, according to Hoffman.

Currents in Lake Ontario tend to move west to east and north to south, and that has international implications because plastic waste from Toronto, one of the region's largest cities, can move across the lake into U.S. waters.

"It emphasizes the policy importance of considering things across state or international lines," Hoffman said.

Tiny tributaries contribute to the contamination, as Paul Steen, a Huron River Watershed Council ecologist, discovered in monitoring creeks that aren't connected with wastewater treatment plants. The watershed covers more than 900 square miles in parts of seven Southeast Michigan counties.

"Even these little creeks, 10 feet wide and less than a foot deep, through Ann Arbor in particular, had a ton of microplastics in them," Steen said.

Possible sources are plastic in dust that washes from city streets into the creeks, staying there until major rainstorms speed up the velocity of the water, which "rushes out in pulses" and sends the particles downstream to the Huron River, which empties into Lake Erie, according to Steen.

Birds, brews and dunes

So what about your craft beer?

Mason and other researchers tested 12 brands of beer, primarily pilsners, brewed with water that nine municipalities draw from the Great Lakes.

Stephen J. Serio

An estimated 22 million pounds of plastic waste pollute the Great Lakes annually. Keeping litter off beaches like this one in St. Joseph, Mich., is among many of the challenges to reducing microplastics pollution.

The team also tested water from seven of those municipalities — Holland and Alpena, Mich.; Chicago and Glenview, Ill.; Duluth, Minn.; and Clayton and Buffalo, N.Y. — as well as water from Cleveland and the Rochester, N.Y., vicinity.

They found plastic fibers and fragments in all dozen of those brews and in 81 percent of the tap water samples.

"The concern is we're polluting our drinking water with plastics," said Jennifer Caddick, vice president of communication and engagement at the Chicago-based advocacy group Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Kris Spaulding, president of Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, is increasingly mindful of microplastics getting into the farmhouse ales and Belgian witbiers her brewery makes using water from the Grand Rapids municipal system, which draws it from Lake Michigan.

"I believe it's a big problem for all of us, whatever you're drinking," Spaulding said. "(The researchers) could have picked any beverage."

As for the impact on fish, scientists from Loyola University Chicago and SUNY Fredonia found microplastics in a variety of species from the Muskegon and St. Joseph rivers in Southwest Michigan and from Wisconsin's Milwaukee River that empty into Lake Michigan.

Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, representing 11 federally recognized Anishinaabe tribes in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, warns that microplastic contamination may contribute to declining Lake Superior fish populations because young fish and species such as cisco may mistake the particles for food.

"Many environmental contaminants adhere to the surface of microplastics, creating an exposure route for these chemicals to the fish that consume them, as well as the humans and wildlife that may ultimately consume those fish," the commission said in a 2020 resolution urging tribal, federal, state and provincial governments to support additional research, restrict use of plastic materials and invest in technology to "prevent and safely remove microplastic contamination from the Great Lakes."

Birds are adversely affected as well. To illustrate, University of Toronto scientists have reported microplastics in the bellies of double-crested cormorant chicks in lakes Erie and Ontario. That debris, they write, "may have negative effects on the physiology, growth, development and, potentially, the behavior of these birds."

How did the microplastics get into the chicks' digestive system? In regurgitated fish fed to them by their parents.

Among other Great Lakes Basin birds, plastic debris has been found in the diets of Lake Ontario and Hamilton Harbor herring gulls and in the gastrointestinal tracts of St. Lawrence River ring-billed gulls.

On land, the first North American study of microplastics in coastal dunes, carried out by researchers at SUNY Oneonta, found plastic pellets, fragments and fibers at sites along the southern and eastern shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

"That was a bit of a surprise to us," said James Ebert, a study co-author and geology professor at SUNY Oneonta. His students found lots of small particles on the beach and thought, "If we found them on the beach, they were probably getting into the dunes."

They were indeed. Some ended up in dunes as far as half a football field from the shore, according to Ebert. His study said, "Once in the coastal dune environment, microplastics accumulate in the sediment and it is likely that some are transported farther inland."

Lack of research

Despite rising public and government concern, there's been far less research about microplastics in the Great Lakes — the world's largest source of drinking water — than in the oceans.

The first peer-reviewed study of plastics in the Great Lakes didn't appear until 2011. In the decade since then, fewer than 10 peer-reviewed scientific studies about their effects on fish, mussels, birds and other wildlife have been published.

And so far, there have been no peer-reviewed studies of the effects of Great Lakes microplastics on the human body, according to Mason, the water sampling expert.

Experts are calling for more research funding to answer crucial questions, including how plastic biodegrades in freshwater systems and how it affects human health. Among the other mysteries in need of exploration are differences in impact based on the chemical makeup, size and shape of plastic particles.

Hoffman, who studies water currents, says governments can benefit from a better understanding of potential risks and how different polymers from different sources move differently in the water.

For Ebert, the geologist, the next step in his sand dunes work is analyzing the results of lab experiments to determine the relationship between particles' size and the amount of wind necessary to move them.

Stephen J. Serio

There is limited research on the long-term health effects of microplastics on wildlife, fish and people who live in the Great Lakes region.

Mason points to the scarcity of studies about the impact on wildlife, saying, "It's a knowledge gap area. What is in our organisms?"

There have been other studies showing microplastics showing up in human feces as well as human placentas, meaning microscopic fragments of plastics are passing from a mother to her developing fetus, Mason said.

"We don't know the ramifications of this on human health," Mason said. "That's kind of the front end of this research, understanding what does this mean? Is there some safe level of ingestion? We don't know."

Eric Freedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

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Published on July 30, 2021 | Opening video: Stephen J. Serio

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