Getting Ahead of the Curve: Learning How to Manage and Reduce Microplastics in the Great Lakes

IJC staff
May 10, 2016
Plastics on a beach

Updated: June 6, 2016

Perhaps you’ve seen photos of the huge masses of garbage, mostly plastics, floating in the oceans. At least 100 studies have documented the amount and impacts of these materials in the ocean environment, and we know that plastics aren’t meant to be in the natural environment, in any form. But what do we know about plastics already in the Great Lakes, and how do we prevent them from getting into the lakes?

The IJC hosted a binational workshop in late April in Windsor, Ontario, to answer these and other questions about plastic debris and microplastics, in particular. Experts from Canada and the United States were brought together because we recognize this as an emerging issue that will require several solutions and coordinated efforts from all sectors of society. A technical workshop was held for two days, with an evening public panel discussion on April 26, 2016.

plastic microplastics microbeads
Plastics on a beach. Credit: 5Gyres

Microplastics are small particles (5 mm or smaller) created as larger plastic debris degrades, from items such as plastic bags, bottles, boxes, straws, fibers from synthetic fabrics, caps and lids, and cigarette butts. They also may enter the lakes as microbeads, which are found in cleansing products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste (Read more from our previous microplastics series). One study has shown that the largest percentage of plastics already in Great Lakes waters – 80 percent – are microplastic particles.

Plastic debris and its decomposed particles can last for years, decades and even centuries in water, and be ingested by aquatic organisms. This may lead to potential impacts on aquatic organisms and others in the food web.

walker windsor microplastics next steps
IJC Canadian Chair Gordon Walker (center) discusses next steps with workshop participants. Credit: IJC 

More than 35 experts from science, government, industry and citizen organizations gathered at our workshop in Windsor to consider what we already know about microplastics in the Great Lakes, and how the entire life cycle of plastic debris can be addressed to prevent new microplastics from reaching the lakes.

One presenter reported that, in the nearshore waters of lakes Ontario and Erie, the four main categories of microplastics found were fragments, microbeads, lines and fibers (see Figure 2). The presence and abundance of these materials can be influenced by winds, currents and rain storm events that can carry materials into the lakes. Polyethylene was identified as the dominant type of plastic found in the lakes.

categories potential sources microplastics microbeads plastics great lakes
Credit: Paul Helm, Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, April 2016

It was made clear by participants that not all scientific reports would come up with the same findings as Figure 2; however, workshop participants did agree that plastic particles do not belong in the Great Lakes and recognize that one pathway of plastic particles to the lakes is wastewater. When homes or industries wash these plastic particles down the drain, most wastewater treatment plants do not have the technology to remove them from their treated water discharge.

Both federal governments are researching the sources and effects of microplastics to develop policy and education programs that will curb the introduction of plastics into the lakes. At the same time, voluntary beach cleanup programs in Canada through the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup program and in the United States through the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-a-Beach program confirm that waste left by beachgoers is another pathway of plastics into the lakes. Volunteers who clean beaches record the number and type of debris and thus contribute to scientists’ understanding of this pathway of plastics to the lakes.

In 2015, more than 6.3 million kg (7,000 tons) of debris was collected from 348 sites in the Adopt-a-Beach cleanups, with 85 percent of all debris items partially or fully composed of plastic. Tiny trash (25 mm or smaller) was the largest single category of debris – 33 percent of the total number of items collected. Of that, 88 percent were plastic and foam pieces. Similar results were found on the Canadian side, where more than 15,000 kg (16.5 tons) of waste was collected from 263 Great Lakes beach locations and all but two of the top 10 categories were plastic items.

shoreline cleanup beach cigarette butts
Credit: Susan Debreceni, Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, 2016

While a recent federal ban in the United States for rinse-off cleansing products and toothpastes that contain microbeads – as well as anticipated action in Canada – will address one component of microplastics pollution by reducing their introduction into the Great Lakes, workshop participants agreed that several additional efforts are needed to truly prevent the same level of microplastic contamination and negative impacts on the lakes that have already occurred in ocean environments. They are developing recommendations for the IJC to consider providing to the Canadian and the US governments concerning needs for research, plastic waste management, reduction and prevention, and education and outreach.

suggested recommendations microplastics technical workshop windsor
Participants at the technical workshop prioritize suggested recommendations on microplastics. Credit: IJC

Workshop participants agreed that additional research and new policies to encourage better waste management throughout the Great Lakes region are needed. They also agreed that every citizen in the Great Lakes region can help to reduce the amount of microplastics entering the lakes by reusing, recycling, and carefully disposing of plastics. Workshop participants will be reviewing a draft report developed by IJC staff, with the Commission intending to possibly issue a series of recommendations to the governments by the end of 2016.

Now is the time to complete necessary scientific studies and embrace the precautionary principle by implementing policies that will prevent the Great Lakes from becoming the same repository for plastic debris as the oceans. Momentum has already been created to recognize this issue through the microbead bans and the Commission may issue its recommendations after more consultation with workshop participants.

What you can do:  In the meantime, here are just a few resources with more information and with some ideas proposed by other organizations that you can consider in your daily actions:

how to just say no to microplastics

for more information beat the microbead

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on June 6, 2016, to include additional information from speakers at the workshop and clarify points relating to how microplastics are categorized.

IJC staff