Photos courtesy of NOAA
By David Long
A January 2021 story by the Capital News Service headlined “Microplastics threaten Great Lakes, and not just the water” was one of the first I have seen recently about the threat of microplastics to our precious fresh waters. However, microplastics have been reported in the Great Lakes for more than 15 years.
Researchers started to get interested in microplastics around 2012, but outside the scientific community, microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes hasn’t gained much interest. How much has been done to reduce microplastics? How much has been done to make the general public aware of this serious and growing threat?
In 2016, there was official acknowledgement that plastic debris and microplastics were becoming an environmental and, potentially, a health hazard in the Great Lakes basin. In September 2016, the International Joint Commission (IJC) published a workshop report with 10 recommendations on microplastics in the Great Lakes. The report’s problem statement underscored the seriousness of the issue: “Microplastics come from many sources that are part of our everyday lives and are present in the Great Lakes. These microplastics may cause a range of adverse environmental and human impacts which we are only beginning to understand.”
Neither the IJC nor others have taken significant action on the report’s recommendations. This is not surprising, since many of the recommendations are extremely difficult and expensive to implement. Some recommendations would take millions of dollars even to launch. But we cannot afford to hesitate. Here are some of the workshop recommendations and my status report on each.
IJC Recommendation: Communicate results of research to share information with the public of all ages and decision makers, through the development of Great Lakes-focused educational materials.
Progress: Few K-12 educational materials have been developed on microplastics. There is still very little general public awareness of microplastics issues. Broad communication about microplastics problems and solutions is not happening. Numerous universities around the Great Lakes have been conducting research on microplastics, but results have largely been communicated only within the scientific community. Many environmental organizations have organized beach cleanups annually, although these are generally not targeted towards microplastics.
IJC Recommendation: Encourage prevention of plastic marine debris through changing behavior by using education, outreach, policy and market-based instruments.
Progress: Implementing this recommendation is a daunting task because changing behavior is extremely difficult. Recycling programs have expanded but a 2019 EPA report estimates only 10% of single-use plastic is recycled. Much single-use plastic goes into landfills and the aquatic environment, ultimately becoming microplastics. Operation Clean Sweep has been operating for 25 years. Plastic item manufacturers pledge to prevent plastic pellets, flakes, or dust from entering the environment. This has been successful for manufacturers but does not address the single-use plastics end-of-life issues. Few market-based bans or fees have been enacted to reduce single-use plastics. The most successful ban is on plastic shopping bags, but it is usually a local effort, not state or national. And a Michigan law actually prohibits local governments from banning plastic shopping bags. Numerous beach communities have banned plastic straws.
There hasn’t been a state or Great Lakes regional effort to reduce single-use plastics. Great Lakes states took the lead on a phosphate detergent ban in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to a major reduction in nutrient pollution and reducing eutrophication of the Great Lakes. Could a single-use plastic ban by Great Lakes be effective?
IJC Recommendation: Assess the impacts of ecological and potential human health impacts using an ecological risk assessment framework (exposure/hazard).
Progress: Although slow, this is finally becoming one of the areas of greatest progress. In the last 5 years, universities and health organizations nationally have been researching the ecological and health impacts of microplastics. Universities around the Great Lakes region are leading the microplastics research efforts for freshwater. Recently published articles include material on microplastics in beer brewed with Great Lakes water and the quantity of microplastics found in bottled water and tap water. Recently, research has been published on impacts to various flora and fauna in aquatic environments.
We’re learning about the devastating impact of microplastics on plankton. The reproductive and digestive systems of zooplankton, near the base of the food chain, are being disrupted. Great Lakes fish are consistently found with microplastics in their tissues, circulatory, and digestive systems.
The study of human impacts from microplastics is both slower and more difficult. A December 2020 article in The Guardian reported a study by scientists in Italy who identified microplastics in the placenta of human babies. The full impact of these studies is not known, but the research is shocking. Finding microplastics in the placenta indicates there were microplastics in the bloodstream of the mothers.
It is documented that microplastics can be carriers of many pollutants. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are a large group of toxic organic pollutants that can attach to the microplastics and then can be transferred to aquatic organisms, enter the food chain and eventually enter the human body. It is very difficult to trace the pathway to humans, but we do know that concentrations of 14 organochlorine pesticides, 7 polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), 14 polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDEs) 4,4′-DDT and some PBDEs such as BDE 99 and BDE 209, brominated flame retardants, and perfluorinated chemicals like PFOS are all found in the human body.
IJC Recommendation: Compare and analyze existing programs and policies for reduction and prevention of plastic marine debris and promote those that are good models for plastics management.
Progress: In 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collaboratively developed the first Great Lakes Marine Debris Action Plan, a land-based plan with 26 volunteer organizations participating. The 2018 summary document listed 53 actions in the plan. At the end of 2018, 22 actions had been acted upon. The Great Lakes Marine Debris Plan was very extensive, well-developed, and had many partners and very specific actions. The most disappointing part of the plan was the lack of industrial partners. The American Chemical Society was the only industrial partner identified. Could large industrial partners such as P&G, Unilever, Clorox, and SC Johnson have been recruited?
A new 2020 Great Lakes Marine Debris Action Plan was created by a voluntary, collaborative effort of 39 organizations from the United States and Canada to address marine debris through coordinated actions. This Action Plan encompasses work that will be undertaken in a five-year span (2020-2025). The plan will be re-evaluated and updated in a mid-year review. Again, there are few industrial partners that could make a positive impact and also help fund the plan.
IJC Recommendation: Invest in solution-based research, including innovative product development and water infrastructure improvements.
Progress: On their own, several textile manufacturers such as Nike, North Face, and Patagonia have been investing millions of dollars in research to understand the extent of the microplastics problem and how to reduce it. Also, some manufacturers such as SC Johnson, P&G, and Unilever have been working on plastic waste reduction for several years.
Very little research has been conducted on removing microplastics and microfibers from wastewater. Several universities have recently identified new methods to remove or degrade microplastics in wastewater. It will take billions of dollars for research to develop effective methods to remove or degrade the microplastics in the aquatic environment. This research needs to focus on the entire aquatic environment, both fresh and saltwater.
IJC Recommendation: Develop and/or adopt standardized sampling and analytical methods for microplastics. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has developed sampling and analytical protocols for microplastic particles in the size range of 0.333–5 mm that can be encouraged to be used in microplastics sampling and research. There is also a need to develop/utilize sampling and analytical methods able to measure plastic particles at sizes smaller than 0.333 mm.
Progress: Many universities and institutions have been developing analytical methods for sampling open water, drinking water, wastewater, and even beer. An excellent review of method by Joana Correia Prata, et.al, is in Methods for sampling and detection of microplastics in water and sediment: A critical review, found in the peer-reviewed journal Trends in Analytical Chemistry, which describes a method for measuring the microfibers from washing machine water. There has been great progress on methods, but little effort to collaboratively agree on standard methods. A review of Standard Methods of Water and Wastewater Analysis indicates standard microplastic methods have not been adopted by the three sponsoring organizations.
Communities, the media, and K-12 schools have been slow to recognize the serious issue of microplastics in the Great Lakes. Microplastics in the oceans are much more widely acknowledged; globally, more research is being done on marine environments.
What Can We Do to Make the General Public Aware of Microplastic Issues in the Great Lakes?
Can we convince plastic manufacturers and manufacturers of single-use plastic items to join the effort to educate and take responsibility for the items they manufacture so they don’t go into the environment? Will it take legislation on the federal or state level to have enough impact to reduce the volume of microplastic entering the Great Lakes? How do we influence Great Lakes States legislators to pass legislation to control the Microplastics waste entering the Great Lakes? How do we start to repair the harm that has been done to the Great Lakes and its ecosystem? These are critical questions to address if we’re to attack the microplastics problem seriously. Our Great Lakes deserve no less.
David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS), which provides consulting services for environmental sustainability.
Photo: Possible microplastic mass in lower segment of Copepod
By David Long
The Great Lakes face many challenges. Some are well-known, such as Asian carp, but some are almost invisible, such as microplastics.
Small plastic detritus, termed “microplastics” or “microfibers,” are a widespread contaminant in aquatic ecosystems including the Great Lakes.
Research reported in Environmental Science and Technology suggests that marine microplastic debris can have a negative impact upon zooplankton function and health. It can be surmised that the zooplankton communities of the Great Lakes can also be negatively impacted by microfibers. A major concern is that since zooplankton is at the bottom of the food chain microplastics (microfibers) can cause a changes in the zooplankton community. This can harm Great Lakes fisheries.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines microplastics as small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long that can be harmful to our aquatic life. They are created by the degradation of larger items, such as discarded single use plastic containers, effluent from wastewater treatment plants and even fallout from the air. Microplastics from wastewater treatment plants comes from discarded plastics, laundering fleece, synthetic fiber clothing, and waste from carpet cleaning. Microplastics in airborne dust can enter the water through wind and runoff from roads and other impervious surfaces.
Ingestion of microplastics by organisms, including mussels, worms, fish, and seabirds, has been widely reported, but the impact of microplastics on zooplankton remains under-researched. It is very difficult to identify microfibers in zooplankton. Microplastics are best identified using 3D bioimaging techniques to document ingestion, egestion, and adherence of microplastics.
Microplastics have been observed adhering to the external carapace and appendages of exposed zooplankton. Ingestion of microplastics can interfere with the digestive system. More research is needed to understand the impact of microplastic debris on zooplankton.
Microplastics and microfibers pollution is well documented in research from universities such as the University of Michigan, Notre Dame, The University of Chicago, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and the State University of New York, Fredonia. Researchers from these schools as well as the U.S. Geological Survey have documented the presence of microplastics and microfibers in the Great Lakes since 2013.
Researchers have seen the volume of microplastics and microfibers increase over the years. Microfibers and microplastics have been found in beer brewed with Great Lakes water and drinking water taken from the Great Lakes. It is estimated about 22 million pounds of plastics enter the Great Lakes each year. Unfortunately, there is no legislation that protects our valuable Great Lakes water from plastic pollution.
There are no known solutions for cleaning up microplastic pollution in our lakes and oceans. Plastic does not degrade, it only breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. The only solution for the future is to reduce the amount of single-use plastics and increase the percentage of plastic that is recycled. Currently only 9% of plastic in the United States is recycled. It is cheaper to make virgin plastic from oil than to recycle plastic. Until the economics change, the industry will continue to make virgin plastic from oil and the recycle rate for plastics will remain low.
David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability.
By Holly N. Wright, FLOW Special Contributor
“We brought you some water; we hope it helps,” say two volunteers from the nearby Presbyterian Church of Traverse City during a visit to my residence on October 21 in the Pine Grove neighborhood of Traverse City’s East Bay Township. “We have meals prepared for folks on Thursdays to help during the COVID-19 pandemic; we can feed you, too. Please let us know if you need anything.”
Their offer of water and food feels thoughtful and sincere, and also brings to my mind receiving a post-funeral dish. I feel a deep sense of loss.
News has just broken that drinking water wells in East Bay Township, just a few blocks from Traverse City’s eastern edge and just across US-31 from East Grand Traverse Bay, may be contaminated by PFAS—what are being called “forever chemicals.”
My well. My neighbors’ wells. Our wells… our water… the water that many in my neighborhood use for drinking and cooking; the water that our households consume.
News articles hit. The Traverse City Record-Eagle reports, as does The Ticker, that about 20 homes and one business may have been using drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals — possibly for decades. The word “cancer” jumps off the screen wherever it appears.
State environmental regulators launch efforts to determine whether wells in the Pine Grove neighborhood are contaminated. The new investigation comes after a series of state-installed groundwater monitoring wells returned elevated results for various PFAS chemicals. Sampling wells monitored by state environmental regulators detected levels of PFAS above the acceptable range.
I became aware of this serious situation via a letter in my mailbox dated October 19 from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), which stated: “Your water well may be contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) compounds related to contamination at the East Bay site near Cherry Capital Airport and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station.”
I re-read the letter, once, twice; a handful of blocky paragraphs of formal and vague content. A letter that, not so long ago, I may have disregarded as non-urgent. “Evaluating… if contamination… was detected… groundwater…”
It’s personal and professional for me. I work in, around, and for water. Currently, I serve as intern for the Glen Lake Association and am preparing to graduate from the Freshwater Studies Program through Northwestern Michigan College. In summer of 2019, I interned with FLOW. Despite my having, on my part, a basic understanding of the PFAS issue, I struggle to process the letter.
They’re requesting permission to sample the well. A contractor will call to set up an appointment to take a water sample. Results may take… “a few weeks.” There are some websites and numbers for more information — including information to contact the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Grand Traverse County Health Department. Until a recommendation can be provided by the State of Michigan, residents can get bottled water for free at the fire station. As a “precaution.”
Later, loading four cases of bottled water into my vehicle at the fire station on Parsons Road near Three Mile Road, equipped with a new voucher for the next week, it’s really sinking in — this is a thing. This is going to be a thing — but I do not know what to expect. This unknown feels disturbing. Unsettling.
A complexity: Gratitude for access to the bottled water alongside grievance with the product. This water, diverted from elsewhere, probably contains microplastics; its own style of potential nastiness. My bin is filling up fast with many individual plastic Aquafina-brand bottles. Wait, are these actually recyclable? The packaging is unclear. I should find out if it’s recyclable… I should find out… which number to call…
At a virtual town hall meeting on October 26, representatives from EGLE and MDHHS present many slides with data and maps. It’s a lot to take in. Can I rely on these government agencies to observe good methods and to have my back? How are other households viewing this situation and coping? Questions — and emotions like sadness and anger, arise. It’s complicated. I’m not sure how to feel.
Connecting with others helps. Carol and Phillip Popa, longtime Pine Grove owners, love their home with its custom woodwork, built on-site, one of the neighborhood’s earliest houses and Carol’s childhood home. Talking, we laugh and agree that the plastic bottle situation is “a pain” and that we’re getting too much election mail; and that the October 26 town hall presentation was challenging to attend, mentally. But when I hear Carol say that she’s “having a hard time” feeling comfortable brushing her teeth with tap water, I cringe; and when Phillip says, “I could have cancer because of them,” I’m numb. It’s not good. It’s not right.
As the Popas tell me about their lifelong connections with water as Michiganders — fishing, boating, rock hunting — activities enjoyed in the past and now; I reflect on my own relationship with my threatened tap water.
The water that flows from my tap is the water that flows below my home.
I am connected to that water. That ancient groundwater, connected to surface water. Everything is connected in the watershed by the hydrologic cycle.
So when my heart aches over poisoned water, it aches also for the life connected to the water. From the little aquatic insects to the fish and the people — many lives all over this great State of Michigan. Inseparable. Degraded.
Groundwater is invisible. My grief feels nebulous and difficult to attach.
As of this week, AECOM, the engineering firm contracted by EGLE, will be coming by to sample my well.
I can wait. I can reach out for support and information. I will pay attention.
By Jerry Beasley
I’m sitting on the deck at our lakeside cottage, peering through the trees, hoping that when I do so in the future I will see healthy waters, and the same beauty that I have loved for such a long time. There are so many threats. I must confess that the great COVID-19 pandemic that has so overwhelmed us all for these past many months has made me draw inward, wanting to protect the waters and all things of natural beauty just for myself. I don’t think I am alone. That’s how the solitary ongoing vigilance to keep ourselves safe can undermine our commitment to the safety of the world around us. I have become more and more conscious of submitting to anxiety about the pandemic’s threat to me and those I love. I believe this has happened to us all in one degree or another, however committed to the health of our world we may have always been.
But now I am looking at our bird feeder and marveling at the beauty and the energy of the small creatures that come to it again and again with such an abundance of zest for life. I see chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, goldfinches, downy woodpeckers, and, occasionally, rose-breasted grosbeaks. And we have hummingbirds. Black squirrels and tiny pine squirrels scurry around on the ground, long since having given up trying to raid our fancy feeder, hoping to find a sunflower seed dropped from above by a careless or hasty bird. Just watching these creatures, in all their innocence and exuberance, is a transformative act. And as my mind is drawn out of itself, my eye drifts beyond them once again to the light shadowing through the hemlocks and beeches, finally to the lake that has brought us here—my wife and me—to this century-old cottage and its long history in her family, now through five generations.
The cottage is located on Intermediate Lake near the Antrim County village of Central Lake in northwest Lower Michigan. The locals are very protective of their village’s name, and the iconic Bachmann’s General Store actually sells a sweatshirt displaying the words “Central Lake is a Village, Not a Lake.” But at one time in the past the lake was, indeed, called “Central Lake.” Both of these names were bestowed because the lake lies in the very middle of the Antrim Chain, whose 14 separate lakes extend for 55 miles southward from a point near the village of Ellsworth, eventually emptying into Grand Traverse Bay at Elk Rapids. The Chain contains more than 200 miles of shoreline and 60 square miles of water surface, and serves as a major watershed area, critical to the health of Lake Michigan.
Intermediate Lake was once just the Intermediate River, until, in 1900, a dam was constructed near the village of Bellaire for the purpose of providing hydroelectric power. The dam no longer generates electricity, but the lake that its construction made possible remains, a beautiful relic of a modern intrusion upon its original pristine form. Sometimes we humans get something right, even when we act selfishly in our relations with the natural world.
I have wondered lately about the deeper history of Intermediate Lake. Before transplanted Europeans arrived, the region around the Chain of Lakes was inhabited solely by the Ojibwa, who lived in the natural world with an intimacy now too often lost. For example: What makes people think it is all right to denude the shoreline of vegetation and then scatter fertilizer over expanses of lawn mowed to look like a suburban landscape? And why are so many septic systems leaching nutrients into so many of the lakes in our region? I don’t mean to suggest that all amenities of lakeside living or vacationing need to be sacrificed. But isn’t it of greater importance to value and preserve the natural wonders that surround us?
I am full of admiration for all of those—individuals and organizations, like FLOW—trying so hard to save our Great Lakes and the many inland lakes that bless all of us who live here. Invasive plants, pollutants like PFAS, microplastics, beach trash—the efforts in response to these and other assaults upon our precious waters go on and on, powered so often by volunteer groups and individuals dedicated to mitigation, cleanup, prevention, and habitat protection.
I recently learned of a project undertaken by the Lake Leelanau Lake Association to rid the lake’s waters of the invasive Eurasian Watermilfoil by anchoring biodegradable sheets of burlap (40 feet x 400 feet!) underwater to smother the intruder and kill it without the use of herbicides or any chemicals. Biologist Brian Price developed this ingenious approach as a result of his dedication to the health of the lake and its fish population. (A fascinating documentary on this project can be found on NatureChange.org.) Meanwhile, members of the Intermediate Lake Association monitor the area around the Loon nests near the southern end of the lake and do all they can to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those beautiful and mysterious birds, with the kind of dedication that keeps them returning year after year.
Efforts like these, and many similar undertakings on other waters, grow from a love of the natural world that is rarer and rarer in our increasingly urbanized world. I wrote in another posting for FLOW last year that protecting, and indeed saving, our waters is “A Matter of the Heart,” making the case that, “If the heart is not engaged, the waters will not be saved.” I’m inclined to put this a bit differently now. I believe that what we need to recover and rediscover, to the extent that we can, is the same reverence for our waters, and indeed for all of our natural environment, felt by Indigenous peoples. To Native Americans, the land and the waters are sacred, not to be defiled. Their connection to the earth remains deep, elemental, communal, personal, spiritual. May we all strive now to make our own connection, in this modern world, more like theirs.
Jerry Beasley was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1940. He attended Vanderbilt University, majoring in English Literature, and went on to receive his M.A. from the University of Kansas and his Ph.D from Northwestern University. He was a member of the English faculty at the University of Delaware for almost forty years, specializing in 18th-century British fiction and early women’s fiction. He is the author or editor of seven books and more than seventy articles and reviews in scholarly journals and collections. He and his wife, Fleda Brown, moved from Delaware to Traverse City in 2007. Jerry was a member of the Traverse Area District Library Board of Trustees for eight years, serving as Board President for two of those years. He currently serves on the Traverse City Human Rights Commission and is a volunteer with Munson Hospice.
Photo: Jack Beam holds a discarded mask he found floating in Glen Lake in August.
By Nicole Hayes
Face masks, gloves, eye protection, and other forms of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) have become an important part of our daily life during the Coronavirus pandemic. But as states have reopened and people ventured out more, their improper disposal of this protective gear has threatened the environment.
Michigan has seen a noticeable increase of improperly disposed PPE in parking lots, streets, beaches, lakes, and parks. The Michigan State Police have reminded Michiganders that used face masks, gloves, and other personal protective wear belong in the trash can. If Michiganders litter with their PPE, the state warns they could face a fine of up to $225.
The Environmental Science and Technology Journal reported in June that an estimated average of 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are used per month globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. The synthetic and non-biodegradable materials in non-reusable masks, surgical masks, and gloves take hundreds of years to break down in the environment.
Significant amounts of PPE are finding their way to rivers, lakes, oceans, and beaches. Glen Lake resident Jack Beam posed for this photo in August after finding a mask floating in Glen Lake. Discarded PPE can harm surrounding wildlife as it spills into storm drains and enters nearby rivers and lakes unfiltered. Masks clogged in pipes contributed to a sewage backup at a Traverse City elementary school during heavy rains last week. Gloves, many masks and sanitizing wipes contain plastic, which breaks down into microplastics that attract pesticides and other harmful chemicals, officials with the Citizens Campaign for the Environment said. Marine life could ingest these microplastics, which can result in death.
In addition to PPE, the increased use of disinfectant wipes during the pandemic is causing environmental problems. Macomb County reported removing 4,000 pounds of wipes a week per pump station in May. In March, the town of East Jordan saw an influx of disinfectant wipes being flushed down toilets. “Wipes are a recurring problem for sewer or septic systems,” said Scott Dean, a spokesman at the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. When wipes and forms of PPE materials are flushed, they plug collection systems. Wastewater treatment plant operators are forced to manually open and remove the clog while exposing themselves to countless germs and bacteria.
The solution is simple: Dispose of masks, gloves, and other forms of PPE in the trash. These materials are not to be recycled. Across the country, various companies are launching PPE cleanup events. A Chicago-based company, iPromo, has launched a coast-to-coast effort to reduce PPE litter. For every five pieces of PPE properly disposed, the company will donate one mask to a charity in need. Their goal is to donate 250,000 masks in 2020.