The following excerpts are from WaterCanada, March/April issue
Message in a Bottle, researchers found warning about plastics in Great Lakes, written by Saul Chernos.
When Dr. Sherri Mason and her team cast a net into three Great Lakes last July, scouring for debris, they weren’t sure what to expect. Mason, an associate professor of chemistry with the State University of New York (SUNY), had followed the ongoing saga of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other giant swirls of litter cluttering the oceans and wondered about the situation closer to home. Might the world’s largest body of fresh water be a significant contributor to an alarming phenomenon that has seen highly durable plastics literally stuff the bellies of birds, fish, and other sea creatures? Anxious about the impact that people living within this enormous inland watershed might be having on aquatic life, Mason secured funding, arranged for a boat, and assembled the resources and expertise needed to draw answers from the lakes’ often-choppy waters.
Although the following YouTube video, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, (uploaded by Good Morning America, July 25, 2011) deals with Ocean polution (garbage patches), the concern of the impact on our great lakes is the same.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not alone in the world, and it is somewhat of a misnomer. There are two major garbage patches in the Pacific – one north, one south – and there are two more in the Atlantic, plus a fifth in the Indian Ocean. Each is located within a major gyre, subservient to its currents. Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, has visited each of them, studying their effects on aquatic life. From microscopic bead-like molecules to entire cigarette lighters and water bottles, Eriksen has seen it all – and not always floating or captured in his nets. Three years ago, after finding dead birds with plastic extruding from their decomposing chests, he was moved to launch 5 Gyres to confront this emerging but increasingly striking environmental crisis…
Most prevalent, however, were particles microscopic in size. The crew also found that volumes tended to increase as they sailed in the direction of the water flow. “That matched our hypothesis,” Mason explains. “Lake Superior is the beginning of the Great Lakes system, and while a huge number of people live along Superior,
Lake Erie has the most people and the water flows in that direction.” Mason says this suggests a cumulative effect, with the lower lakes likely receiving debris from the upper lakes, leading to concern that what goes into Lake Superior and the other lakes eventually makes its way into the Atlantic Ocean. How is this garbage getting into the lakes in the first place? “It’s from us,” Mason points out. “When you see a bag blowing in the breeze, eventually it’s going to make its way into the lake.” Of equal concern is what’s flushed down toilets and drains… The plastic itself isn’t the only problem. Mason says PCBs, persistent organic pollutants, and other chemicals that end up in the water tend to adsorb onto materials such as plastic. So, even if plastic isn’t the actual killer, aquatic creatures could potentially be affected by poisons clinging to the plastic. Toxins could also work their way up the food chain, ultimately affecting humans. Mason even worries that the microscopic beads from personal care products and other sources might be bypassing local wastewater treatment systems in much the same way pharmaceuticals are escaping, and that they might even be returning through drinking water intakes. Plastics in municipal facilities Municipal officials overseeing water and wastewater systems agree that the issue of plastics in inland water bodies is only recently coming to light.
London, Ontario draws water from both Lake Huron and Lake Erie. The city’s managing director for environmental and engineering services, John Braam, says his drinking water plant’s filters are designed to catch particles larger than two microns. This is well below the 333-micron threshold Mason and her crew captured during their expedition, and Braam is confident the city’s drinking water is free of particles larger than two microns. On the wastewater side, Braam says he doesn’t know of any municipality – his included – which actively measures wastewater treatment plant outflows for particle content. Still, he’s relatively confident his wastewater treatment systems are catching most plastics, along with other the other contents they’re designed to capture. “Through biologically activated mechanical wastewater treatment plants, most plastics ought to be picked up through the screening or settlement processes,” Braam explains, adding that London has membrane filters designed to .04 which would be effective at removing larger icro-sized particles. As well, he points out that micro-plastic fibres from polyester and other synthetic clothing, which can come off in the wash… While the Ministry isn’t doing any research at the moment about plastics in inland waterways, that could soon change.
“News reports have highlighted the issue, and we’re starting to talk to researchers in the field,” Helm says. “We’re looking at the methods we have in-house that could start addressing whether we could measure the plastics and what partners we would work with if we needed to pursue this. Right now we’re working to put together some context to characterise the issue. If you’re finding plastics then the next step is you want to know where they’re coming from.”… This kind of research could soon be underway. Sherri Mason says she’s preparing to sample four municipal wastewater systems in New York State later this year. Regardless of the outcome of this research, however, Mason believes the key to meaningfully improving the situation—for wildlife, ecosystems, and people—is to address the very prevalence of plastics in our lives. “Plastics were originally designed with the best of intentions—to replace natural products that were becoming rare,” she explains. “We make something, put it on the marketplace, and don’t think about its lifecycle and what will happen to it in the end. All the qualities of plastic that make it so wonderful from a business standpoint also make it a concern from an environmental standpoint. It’s lightweight, durable, and now we have so much of it we don’t have a handle on what to do with it. We’ve become a disposable society. We throw it away, but it doesn’t go away. There is no ‘away.”…