Experts say that there will be more plastic than fish in our waters by 2050. In the Great Lakes, plastic makes up 80% of all litter. And we're not just talking about plastic bottles and food packaging, although they are a problem as well.
Microplastics—any plastic that is less than five millimetres in diameter—pose a significant threat to our lakes. Sewage treatment plants, primarily designed to treat waste, do not have the capability to filter out all these microplastics before being released into the water.
On Lake Ontario's surface alone there are already thousands of plastic pieces per square kilometre.
There are five type of micro plastics: microfibres, microbeads, fragments, nurdles, and foam.
Of those five, microfibres are by far the most abundant. 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. Research funded by Patagonia estimates that 40% of microfibres are not filtered out at wastewater treatment plants.
Microbeads have probably received the most media attention, and the most government action as well. They are most commonly found in cosmetic products. Canada an the U.S. consider microbeads as toxic substances and will be officially banned in both countries by 2019.
Dangers of microplastics
These small pieces of plastics are often mistaken for food by insects, plankton, fish, and other aquatic life. 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, which then get passed up the food chain.
Recognizing the very real and growing dangers of microplastics, the International joint commission (IJC) released a report in February 2017 to the governments of Canada and the United States recommending steps to prevent and remove microplastics in the Great Lakes.
IJC acknowledges that it will require U.S. and Canada working together to fix the microplastic problem in the Great Lakes.
Waterkeeper in action
In March 2015, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Ottawa Riverkeeper, and Environmental Defence Canada with representation from Ecojustice, recommended that Environment Canada add microbeads to the Priority Substances List, under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). This list specifies which substances are given priority in assessing whether they are toxic or capable of becoming toxic. It gives the federal government more power to control the use of these toxic substances in Canada.
In September 2015, the federal government proposed labelling microbeads "toxic" and began a consultation process. In June 2016, that process came to an end and the federal government announced that microbeads would be labeled toxic. A ban is forthcoming.
In March 2016, the House of Commons unanimously voted to add a narrowly-defined type of microbead to the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. In May 2016, Environment and Climate Change Canada announced that it would adopt a broader definition of microbeads thanks in part to comments by Waterkeeper and other members of the public.
On June 29, 2016, the Government of Canada officially listed "microbeads" as toxic substances.
In November 2016, Canadian federal government says effective July 1, 2018, the sale of shower gels, toothpaste and facial scrubs containing plastic microbeads will be banned. Microbeads found in natural health products and non-prescription drugs will be prohibited a year later, on July 1, 2019. This promise became law on June 14, 2017.
The Federal Government is currently developing regulations to eliminate the use of microbeads in personal care products. In February, the government made its proposed regulations available to the public for comment. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, Ottawa Riverkeeper, Fraser Riverkeeper and North Saskatchewan Riverkeeper submitted joint comments on the proposed regulations. Read them here.
Recently, the Canadian Government proposed a ban on microbeads in soaps and personal care products. At first, many of us thought this was a great win. But banning microbeads isn't as straightforward as some might think. Hannah looks closer at the situation and explains why there are concerns with the proposed ban.
This 5-minute presentation by Krystyn Tully of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper summarizes the reasons the legislation would help to better protect the Great Lakes. It was delivered to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs on June 4, 2015.