Environmental experts are encouraging residents to ditch plastic in favor of greener alternatives, such as reusable cutlery and reusable water bottles. More than 22 million pounds of plastic end up in the Great Lakes each year, according to a recent study.

Environmental experts are encouraging residents to ditch plastic in favor of greener alternatives, such as reusable cutlery and reusable water bottles. More than 22 million pounds of plastic end up in the Great Lakes each year, according to a recent study.

Photo by Kayla Dimick

Be part of the pollution solution

By: Kayla Dimick | C&G Newspapers | Published July 24, 2019

METRO DETROIT — The Great Lakes are home to many fascinating creatures, but local environmentalists are warning against the invasion of a new beast: microplastic.

According to Jennifer Caddick, vice president of communications and engagement at Alliance for the Great Lakes, microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that have worked themselves into bodies of water and were once part of larger pieces of plastic, such as water bottles or food containers, since plastic never decomposes.

“We hear so much about plastic pollution in the ocean, but a lot of the time we don’t hear about plastic pollution in the Great Lakes,” Caddick said. “Pieces of a plastic water bottle or a takeout food container, when those wash into lakes, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic called microplastic.”

Caddick said many people who call the Great Lakes region home may not even be aware of microplastic.

“When you look out on the Great Lakes, they look great, but you can’t see the tiny little pieces of plastic that cause problems for not only wildlife, but get into our drinking water,” she said. “Even beer that is bottled in the Great Lakes region has been found to have microplastic in it. It’s coming back to humans.”

Researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Caddick said, estimate that more than 22 million pounds of plastic debris end up in the Great Lakes each year.

Last year, Alliance for the Great Lakes hosted an Adopt-a-Beach program, where 15,000 volunteers cleaned up shorelines on all five of the Great Lakes.

During that cleanup, 85% of the litter collected was made up entirely or in part of plastic, and items ranged from cigarette butts to takeout containers to balloons.

While all of the statistics can be overwhelming, one organization has proved that everybody can make a difference.

In recent years, the Australia-based Plastic Free Foundation launched the Plastic Free July challenge, in which people from around the world can “choose to refuse” single-use plastics throughout the month of July and opt for more Earth-friendly choices.

Last year, 120 million people accepted the challenge, and nearly 1.1 billion pounds of plastic waste was avoided as participants cut their use of disposable plastics by 5.6%, according to the Plastic Free Foundation. Participants also reduced their household waste by nearly 10% during the challenge.

In a recent newsletter, officials at the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County encouraged residents to take the plunge and go plastic free for the month of July.

“At the end of the day, this fits with our basic framework of reduce, reuse and recycle,” RRRASOC General Manager Mike Csapo said. “By paying attention to those types of things that we use on a regular basis, this offers us an opportunity to eliminate the pressure that we put on our solid waste management system.”

Both Csapo and Caddick said small steps can really make an impact when it comes to going plastic free.

“This is one of those issues that on the surface, it kind of feels really overwhelming, but I always think of it in terms of a diet,” Caddick said. “Don’t try to change everything all at once — just make some small changes. Instead of eating the french fries, trade it for veggies. Instead of a plastic water bottle, use a reusable one.”

Caddick also said reusable cutlery, reusable totes and reusable snack bags are all good alternatives to their single-use plastic alternatives.

If you must use plastic, Csapo recommends to be mindful about the type of plastic you choose.

“There are plastic cutlery that we can’t recycle,” he said. “If somebody were to have a picnic, they can make a choice about what they’re going to use. Think in terms of if the item is reusable. If it’s not reusable, is it recyclable?”

However, Caddick said sometimes plastic just can’t be avoided.

“Sometimes plastic is indubious and sometimes hard to avoid. Be aware of the recycling options,” she said. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. Sometimes we all end up using plastic, but recycle it or dispose of it properly and make sure it doesn’t get into our lakes.”

Kathleen Sexton, program manager at the Clinton River Watershed Council, said she is working with Wayne State University’s College of Engineering on a research project focused on microplastics.

Last year, WSU was awarded a $929,000 grant to research ways to mitigate microplastic pollution.

“It’s really kind of cool. The researchers at Wayne State are collecting different types of plastic and creating a sort of ‘plastic DNA,’ and map it as it passes through a sensor. It can tell them what type of plastic it is, where it came from and how old it is, and their sensor can match it to what type of plastic it is.”

In addition to the research, Sexton said the Clinton River Watershed Council hosts weekly cleanups to try to rid the waterways of plastic and other debris.

The cleanup is held every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon, and no registration is necessary. For more information, visit crwc.org.