No place in the world is left untouched by plastic pollution.
Researchers are finding plastics everywhere they look, including the ocean, the Great Lakes, on out of-the-way uninhabited islands and even trapped in remote Arctic Sea ice.
Just look around you. How many things can you find that aren’t made from plastic or packaged in plastic? Because it’s durable, lightweight and cheap and can be made into virtually anything, it now makes up the majority of every product that touches our daily lives, including facial scrubs and toothpaste.
Beaches and waterways are littered with the discarded plastic products of human society: water bottles, cigarette lighters, cigarette butts, food containers and utensils, toothbrushes, straws and more. Studies show these items end up thousands of miles from the nearest civilization and that most of the worldwide plastics waste ultimately ends up in the ocean.
The remains of dead baby albatrosses reveal the far-reaches of plastic pollution on Midway Atoll, 2000 miles from any mainland.
However, until Sherri Mason, a SUNY Fredonia chemistry professor, led the study of plastics pollution in Lake Erie in 2012, no one was documenting plastic in freshwater. Since then, she has found plastic in water samples taken from all the Great Lakes, with the highest concentrations found in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
Plastic debris does not biodegrade, so it can remain for centuries and cause untold havoc in ecosystems.
Whether in the ocean or the Great Lakes, the most worrisome marine plastic debris cannot easily be seen because it includes microplastic resin pellets used to manufacture plastic products, microbeads added to personal care products, and the breakdown of plastic bags, bottles and other products.
Researchers found plenty of micro-plastics less than 1 millimeter in diameter. Some broke off from larger pieces over time. Tiny round pieces could be body scrub and toothpaste micro-beads that pass right through wastewater treatment plants.
Plastics pollution kills untold numbers of fish, seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals each year after they ingest plastic or get entangled in it. Ninety percent of Laysan Albatross chick carcasses and regurgitated stomach contents have been found to contain plastics. Mason has also documented plastic in Great Lakes fish and birds, including perch, lake trout, muskie and cormorants. Researchers are finding the plastics and seeing them increase at every trophic level up the food chain.
Furthermore, as plastic fragments float in the water; they act like sponges that accumulate manufactured poisons that are not water-soluble, such as DDT, PAH and PCBs. These pollutants are known to bioaccumulate and biomagnify up the food chain and find their way into the foods we eat. The plastic pieces will likely make this problem worse.
Perhaps plastic pollution has reached this level because most people never see the accumulating amount of marine debris and the serious threat it poses. But studies by Mason, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Ocean Conservancy, the 5 Gyres Institute, the United Nations and others will, it is hoped, demonstrate that the impacts and quantity of marine debris are significant.
These pollutants have increasingly negative effects on our economy, costing huge amounts in beach cleanups, tourism losses and damage to fishing and aquaculture industries. Eliminating marine debris and its staggering costs to the environment, wildlife, navigation safety, human health and the economy will require every citizen to take action. You can start by volunteering for the PA Lake Erie International Cleanup, and by joining us next week to learn what others are doing to prevent this problem.