Microplastics a Problem in the Great Lakes

  • The majority of the plastic that Mason and her team found were tiny pieces called microplastics. Photo: 5 Gyres

  • Dr. Sherri Mason and her crew trawled the Great Lakes to study plastics pollution. Photo: 5 Gyres

  • Marla Degenhart makes natural scrubs and masks using everything from oatmeal to walnut shells for her Lunasea Salon and Spa in Pittsburgh. Photo: Kara Holsopple

November 8, 2013

Plastics are a part of modern life—they’re in everything.  Plastics are even in our skin care products.  Exfoliating beads called microbeads in many facial scrubs are made of plastic, and they’re making an appearance in a new study that looks at how much plastic ends up in the Great Lakes, and how it gets there. The little beads may mean big problems for wildlife and human health.

Dr. Sherri Mason, a researcher from the State University of New York at Fredonia, has found an ingredient in the commercial version of cosmetic scrubs in the Great Lakes by the thousands—microplastics.

"About 60 percent of the microplastics we found were these perfectly round, spherical balls.  And those definitely don’t come from the degradation of larger plastic items," says Mason.

The balls come from face washes and cosmetics with small, colorful plastic beads, referred to as microbeads, that do the job of exfoliating skin.  Mason and her team have been trawling the Great Lakes by boat for the last two summers, looking for plastic. Their work is the first study of plastics pollution within the Great Lakes, and one of the first on freshwater plastics pollution.

Half of the plastic in oceans are microplastics.  These are pieces of plastics about one to five millimeters in diameter.  In the Great Lakes, they comprise 80 percent of the plastics pollution.  Most of the plastic ends up in Lake Erie.

Many of us think of plastic pollution as an eyesore—plastic cups and bottles floating near the beach.  But many little plastic pieces make their way into the Great Lakes as those larger plastic items like bags or cups—trash that gets washed through storm drains.  They get broken down by sun, wind and water. In the case of microbeads, they come through municipal sewers.

Mason says finding that so many of these microplastics were little beads was a surprise.  She says the little beads could be creating big problems for wildlife.

"They essentially look like fish eggs.  They look like food.  The biggest concern is the possible ingestion of these microplastics by aquatic organisms," Mason says.

She says similar ocean studies show they are eaten by birds and fish.  They’re so small that even mussels and plankton at the bottom of the food chain can eat them.  The plastics prevent wildlife from digesting real food, and that can kill them. But that’s not the only issue.

Mason says the Great Lakes were once a dumping ground, and even though pollution is more regulated now, some chemicals are persistent. Plastics found during Mason’s study had  elevated levels of industrial chemicals like PCBs.

Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis with Women for a Healthy Environment explains that dangerous chemicals can essentially bind to plastics.  

Her Pittsburgh-based group’s been reaching out to other environmental groups in the Great Lakes region, asking them to put pressure on retailers to stop carrying products which contain hazardous chemicals.  They’re worried about chemicals which can’t be removed through water treatment. Naccarati-Chapkis says it causes a bioaccumulation effect. The fish eat these toxic-coated plastics and then we eat the fish.

"So we know that it works up the food chain and as a result will impact human health," she says.

Naccarati-Chapkis, Sherri Mason and others say that eating fish from the Great Lakes, where commercial fishing is an important industry, could be dangerous because the toxins in the plastics the fish ingest could leach into their flesh that we eat as food.

Politicians are paying attention.  Recently a coalition of Great Lakes mayors asked the U.S. EPA and its Canadian equivalent to regulate microplastics.  Other groups have petitioned cosmetics companies to stop using microbeads in their products, and a few companies like Johnson & Johnson (they own Neutrogena, which uses microbeads in some products) say they will phase out the ingredient.

To try an alternative, Salon owner Marla Degenhart makes homemade scrubs for her Lunasea Salon and Spa in Pittsburgh.

"Everything that I use, every ingredient that I use is biodegradable. I’m very earth-conscious.  I’ve been like a hippie my whole life.  I don’t look like one, but I think like one," says Degenhart.

Degenhart adds oatmeal, fine pumice, and even ground up walnut shells to her exfoliating masks and cleansers.

Mason would like to see more of these natural ingredients.  While her focus is on the Great Lakes, she says this chain of plastics and pollution may be happening in many streams and lakes.