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Study: 22 Million Pounds of Plastic in Great Lakes

A study shows every year 11 million pounds of plastic pollution go into Lake Michigan. (noaa.gov)
A study shows every year 11 million pounds of plastic pollution go into Lake Michigan. (noaa.gov)
December 29, 2016

CHICAGO – Environmental groups are hoping a New Year's resolution for 2017 will be to keep the Great Lakes cleaner.

A report by Rochester Institute of Technology estimates 22 million pounds of plastic end up in the lakes every year.

The study also shows debris travels differently in the Great Lakes than in the ocean.

The ocean has floating "garbage patches," but plastics in the Great Lakes are carried by wind and lake currents to shore, and often end up in another state or even across the U.S.-Canada border.

Lead author Matthew Hoffman says the study is the first picture of the true scale of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

"Just seeing the scale, I think, is sort of eye-opening, and that's one of the things we hope to convey with this," he states.

Last year, scientists discovered masses of floating plastic particles in lakes Superior, Huron and Erie. This summer, they're expanding the search to lakes Michigan and Ontario.

The scientists are trying to determine whether fish are eating the particles, which may come from city wastewater, and passing the particles up the food chain to humans.

Hoffman's team used math to determine where the garbage is coming from and where it ends up. Cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto pollute the most.

Previous studies highlighted the pollution coming from micro beads, which are used in cosmetic products.

"There was a lot of interest in micro beads when some of this research came out a couple of years ago,” he points out. “They've been banned, I know, in Illinois and a number of places, but there's still a lot of plastic floating in the lakes and that didn't necessarily solve the input of plastic."

As for how all that debris is harming wildlife, Hoffman says the study didn't really look at that.

"We're not certain exactly what the impacts are and will be, and so there's a lot of experimental studies that need to be done," he states.

The study found that more than half of the plastic pollution entering the Great Lakes goes into Lake Michigan, followed by lakes Erie and Ontario.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IL