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2018: Year to Clean Up the Great Lakes

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Plastic waste is broken down by currents and sunlight and is often ingested by wildlife. (usgs.gov)
Plastic waste is broken down by currents and sunlight and is often ingested by wildlife. (usgs.gov)
January 15, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. – Clean-water advocates say they’re are hoping 2018 will be a year of better water quality in the Great Lakes and oceans.

Carolyn Box, science program director at 5 Gyres, warns that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the water than fish, with 95 percent of it coming from land. That comes from trash that ends up in storm drains and rivers, then flows into the Great Lakes and oceans.

She said plastic is trapped within currents, taking at least 10 years to cycle back out - if it doesn't get eaten by marine life or sink to the bottom first.

"It's breaking down from wave action and sunlight, so it's breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces,” Box said. “And it's also attracting other contaminants to the plastic itself, which is making those pieces of plastic more toxic."

Box said more people are talking about plastic waste, and companies are taking baby steps to eliminate it. There's a petition drive on Change.org asking Royal Caribbean International to reduce the use of disposable plastic utensils. The group The Last Plastic Straw has said on average, each person in the U.S. uses about 38,000 straws between the ages of 5 and 65.

In 2015, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the Microbead Free Waters Act, which amended the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to ban personal-care products containing plastic microbeads.

But the Alliance for the Great Lakes said that's not enough. Microbeads only make up 16 percent of the plastic pollution. Box said microfibers also are under a lot of scrutiny because they can cause a lot of damage to the ecosystem.

"Synthetic clothing is now shedding plastic into our waterways,” she said. “So it's going down our sinks and down our drains from our washing machines and heading to the wastewater treatment plants and making its way out into the waterways."

Box said lawmakers and businesses need to step up, but individuals can help too by buying as little plastic as possible, particularly water bottles. A study by the Rochester Institute of Technology found nearly 10,000 metric tons - or 22 million pounds - of plastic debris enter the Great Lakes every year.

Veronica Carter, Public News Service - IN