Plastics make up 80% of litter in the Great Lakes. From plastic water bottles and lids to grocery bags and food packaging, you’ve likely seen some form of plastic floating in Lake Ontario or on the shorelines. While no one likes to see all of that waste on our waters, there’s a bigger plastic problem that demands even more attention.
There are actually thousands of plastic pieces per square kilometre near Lake Ontario’s surface. We just can’t see them too easily, if not at all.
Microplastics – any plastic that is less than 5 millimetres in diameter – pose a significant threat to our lakes. Experts say that there will actually be more plastic than fish in our waters by the year 2050. See below for a breakdown of the five major type of microplastics.
Five Types of Microplastics
Fibres account for 71% of the total microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes. They come from such items as fleece clothing, diapers, and cigarette butts. One of the more common ways microfibres get into our lakes is through our very own washing machines. Washing a fleece jacket just once can send out 2,000 microfibres into our waterways. Research funded by Patagonia estimates that 40% of microfibres are not filtered out at wastewater treatment plants. Sewage drains can get clogged as a result of it. Unlike cotton or wool, fleece microfibres are non-biodegradable.
Microbeads are non-biodegradable plastic particles measuring less than one millimetre in diameter. You can finds microbeads in facial cleansers, exfoliating soap products, and toothpaste. Because of their size, microbeads can pass through treatment plants and enter the Great Lakes. To give you a sense of scale, just one tube of toothpaste can contain 300,000 microbeads. They are a problem because fish and other aquatic species can mistake them for food. Because plastic is not digestible, they can clog the intestines, which can lead to starvation and death. Microbeads are considered toxic substances in Canada and the U.S. They will be officially banned in 2019.
Fragments are smaller pieces of plastic that break off from larger pieces of plastic. Common examples include pieces of cutlery, lids, or single-use products. UV radiation from the sun breaks down these fragments into even smaller pieces.
Nurdles are small plastic pellets used to manufacture plastic goods. Companies melt them down and make moulds of plastic products, such as lids to containers. Due to their size, nurdles sometimes spill out of transportation vehicles during delivery, especially with rail cars. Storms and rainwater then push those nurdles into storm drains, which then empty into the lake. Like fragments and microbeads, fish and other aquatic species can mistake nurdles for food.
Styrofoam is used in food containers, coffee cups, and packing material. Chemicals from styrofoam can leach into food and beverages, affecting human health. Reheating food in a styrofoam container increases that exposure. Like fragments, styrofoam breaks down into smaller pieces. Most municipalities do not recycle styrofoam.
Why are microplastics bad for our lakes?
Floating plastics can be eaten by insects or fish. Ingestion can cause abrasions or blockages, which can lead to outright starvation. Plastics spread toxins across ecosystems. Aquatic organisms can even get defects as they absorb pollutants into their skin.
A major problem with microplastics is that they are often too small for wastewater treatment plants to filter out, meaning traces of plastic can even end up in our drinking water.
What you can do
Reduce, reuse, recycle! Just be mindful that not all plastic is recyclable.
Pick up garbage you see. If you don’t, and no one else does, it may end up in the lake.
Avoid personal care products that have ‘poly’ on the label. Good chance they have microbeads in them.
Use reusable cloth bags for groceries instead of plastic and avoid buying plastic water bottles.
Document pollution on social media. Add the date and time, and the hostages. #plasticpollution #mylakeontario
Support Waterkeeper’s investigative work on microplastics.
Report plastic pollution - www.theswimguide.org/report