Microplastics a growing threat to waterways

By: Kevin Bunch | C&G Newspapers | Published May 4, 2016

 A slide shows how small microplastics can get.

A slide shows how small microplastics can get.

Photo provided by the IJC

METRO DETROIT — Tiny pieces of plastic are able to cause a huge headache in the Great Lakes, and they primarily are coming from discarded litter found on the street.

Microplastics are remnants of larger pieces of plastic — like bags, utensils and bottles — that have degraded due to environmental factors into smaller and smaller pieces, according to International Joint Commission Commissioner Dereth Glance.

“Any kind of piece of plastic that ends up on the ground is gonna be washed into the water body. So through the Rouge (for example), or tributaries of the Rouge, they will go into the Detroit River and into the lakes,” Glance said. “They don’t biodegrade. They don’t become part of the biological process. They photodegrade — the wind and sun break them into smaller pieces. They never really go away.”

Aquatic life, like fish, can then mistake microplastics for food, causing health problems and disrupting the food chain, she added.

These microplastics are not causing insurmountable problems yet, Glance said. Since the problem can only get worse, and people already know about the problems these microplastics can cause, she said now is the best time to reduce plastic pollution into the lake.

The IJC — a treaty organization that works on aquatic environmental and usage issues between the U.S. and Canada — hosted a workshop April 26-27 in Windsor to bring together experts to tackle the problem, including scientists, policy makers, citizen groups and representatives from plastics companies, IJC Public Affairs Officer Sally Cole-Misch said.

“We came up with a series of recommendations today focused on research, public outreach and education, pollution prevention, and waste management proposals that the commission will look at over the next few months,” Cole-Misch said. “The draft report should go to them in June, and then the full report should come out in the fall for the public.”

She said the IJC saw such success on a legislative level to deal with microbeads — miniscule pieces of plastic found in some bath and beauty products that are currently being phased out and banned — that they want to “keep the ball rolling” and try to tackle microplastics before the problem gets bigger.

While the official list of recommendations will not be ready for several months, Cole-Misch said some of the items that were discussed include doing more research on the ecological impact of microplastics in the Great Lakes — there have been hundreds of studies on their impact in the oceans, but less than 10 studies on the lakes — targeting outreach programs to the public to help reduce the amount of plastic getting into the water, and looking at waste management policies and regulations in the Great Lakes states and provinces.

“Why do none of the Great Lakes states — New York is the closest — have statewide recyclable policies? Why do other things like metal or paper have an active market for those, but we don’t have those for plastic?” Cole-Misch said. “So what’s the responsibility of the plastics industry itself on recovery and reuse of their product?”

In all, she said, there are close to about a dozen recommendations that the IJC will look at.

Glance said there already are things that people can do in their everyday lives to help reduce the problem, starting with making sure trash makes it into the proper receptacle rather than onto the ground. She also said litter cleanups and usage reduction can do a lot to keep plastic out of the water, particularly clamshell containers from restaurants, utensils, bags, cups and similar items.

“(If we can) reduce the amount of disposable items that have potential to be littered onto ground and carried into the waters, that’s a great way to do it,” Glance said.

On the state level, she said Michigan’s bottle deposit has been a boon to keeping some plastic bottles out of the waterways, and she added that the state should consider expanding it to include sports drinks, teas and other liquids. And on the industry side, Glance said clothing producers may need to reconsider how plastic microfibers found in fleece, among other clothing types, come loose and fall off while being washed. This could include developing filters for washing machines to catch these microfibers, she added.

There are some changes in design and behavior that Glance said have been helpful too.

“I’ve been traveling a lot, and the more places I go, I see more water bottle refill stations,” she said. “We want people to have access to clean, safe water, so simple services like bottle refill stations can be really helpful — and making sure you bring your own bag when you go shopping.

“Anything that gets on the ground, whether it be wrappers or other trash, it’s going to get in the water,” Glance said. “We’re so water-rich, and water seeks its lower ground, so it’s going to bring (trash) along. Anytime you’re looking down, anything you see will get washed in.”