More Progress Needed on Attacking the Threat of Microplastics in the Great Lakes

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,, 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.

One comment on “More Progress Needed on Attacking the Threat of Microplastics in the Great Lakes

  1. Ms Rothfuss on

    I created a lab for 7th graders this (pandemic) year. Sorted sand, massed natural vs artificial, pie graphs, scatter plots w/ best fit lines, math: ratios, percentages, extrapolation, read sci literature and students picked up plastic in their water ecosystems w/photo proof. Many Core standards covered & since we are Bay & Lake people, we drink it, bathe in it, launder in it, recreate every imaginable way, the lesson was meaningful & authentic. 91% natural & 9% plastic in a quiet alcove littered w/ plastic pieces.


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