From oceans to lakes: Plastic pollution affects more people than originally thought

Plastic samples (and dead organisms) found from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre.  (Courtesy of Lorena Rios Mendoza)

Plastic samples (and dead organisms) found from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre. (Courtesy of Lorena Rios Mendoza)

It was nearly 20 years ago that the world was first exposed to the wasteful nature of human consumption.

Captain Charles Moore, an oceanographer and avid sailor, passed through the North Pacific Gyre ­– a convergence zone in the ocean due to water surface currents – where he found massive piles of floating trash, mostly made of plastic. People rarely travel through these zones, so Moore was the first to discover that most garbage was not making it to the landfill but was spilling into the sea.

As the founder of the non-profit organization Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Moore and his fellow researchers directed huge efforts to study ocean pollution. Awareness of unclean oceans and loss of aquatic life grew immensely, though this same problem exists elsewhere. In the past decade, researchers began to see spikes in plastic pollution in freshwater ecosystems, like the Great Lakes of North America and realized that drinking water reserves may become compromised.

“In Lake Erie, I analyzed some samples and compared them to the samples from the Atlantic Ocean,” said Lorena Rios Mendoza, a chemist from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and member of Algalita. “The concentration of [plastic debris] in the ocean was half of what was seen in the lake. This makes sense due to the dilution factor; the Atlantic Ocean is so big in comparison with the shallow Lake Erie.”

The unique aspect about plastics is that they are synthesized, carbon-to-carbon bonded polymers created for durability purposes. According to Mark Clark, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University, plastic does not biodegrade like organic material. Organics decay with the help of bacteria or fungi and break down through photodegradation.

Plastic "junk" gathered on the Chicago beaches of Lake Michigan.  (Courtesy of Mark Clark)

Plastic "junk" gathered on the Chicago beaches of Lake Michigan. (Courtesy of Mark Clark)

“Bacteria, in either water or on land, are not accustomed to degrading these man-made carbon-to-carbon bonds,” Clark said. “However, we have learned that sunlight helps degrade plastic, although, it's not clear how good a thing this is because it appears that sunlight mainly transforms plastics to smaller pieces that are then more likely to enter the digestive tract of animals.”

Mendoza, Clark and other experts in the field have found broken-down microplastic absorbs toxins very easily, and looked into two specific chemicals found in the lakes, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Both chemicals are known as cancer-causing agents, and when they coat plastic particles, fish, and other creatures mistake them for natural food particles. The toxins are then absorbed into the animal’s bloodstream and inevitably kill the organism.

Research in the transfer of toxins up the food chain is still underway, but no definite assertions can be made until further studies are concluded. Many scientists hypothesize that toxin-absorbed plastic that fish consume could potentially hurt people if they consume that meat.

In a 2013 study of the Laurentian Great Lakes, Sherri Mason, a chemist at the State University of New York at Fredonia, and her team studied the breakdown of plastic fragments and where the pollutants were coming from. “Given that the watersheds surrounding the Great Lakes are heavily urbanized, flow into the St. Lawrence River and ultimately to the North Atlantic Ocean, the lakes represent an important potential upstream source of plastic pollution into the North Atlantic Gyre,” Mason and her team reported in the study.

Cities like Chicago that lie on the shores of the Great Lakes have large populations that utilize public sewage systems that can overflow into these large bodies of water. Much of the plastic that ends up in lakes and oceans are too small to be filtered.

“Considering the size of the plastics – 70 percent are less than one millimeter - it is not possible to filter them out of the water without damaging the very living ecosystem that we are trying to protect,” Mason said. “We need to stop these contaminants from entering the water, to begin with, and then let Mother Nature do her own work of cleaning and taking care of herself. The damage is not irreversible, but it will have an impact for a long time.”

These textural bubbles found in common soaps and toothpaste called microbeads are actually the worst offenders of plastic pollution. In lakes, they blend in with the blue-green hues of the water, making them almost indistinguishable from natural food sources for animals and harder to sift through. The study indicated that Lake Michigan has the highest amount of microbeads polluting its waters compared to any of the other Great Lakes.

One solution to this growing concern actually took place in 2014, when former Illinois governor Pat Quinn signed a bill to ban microbeads in consumer products. “Banning microbeads will help ensure clean waters across Illinois and set an example for our nation to follow,” Quinn said. “Lake Michigan and the many rivers and lakes across our state are among our most important natural resources. We must do everything necessary to safeguard them."

In January, Jenna Jambek, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia, and her team of researchers finally published their findings in the journal Science on the amount of plastic that clutters the ocean. They reported that around eight million metric tons of trash made its way to the seas, scaring everyone everywhere at the sheer amount of trash on the planet.

Though frightening, this bit of knowledge has been the most effective method of forcing people to take action, Moore said. He has grown his organization and created programs for children and adults alike, trying to educate everyone to make important lifestyle changes for a cleaner world.

“Our economy is based on waste, it thrives on waste, but research and education will always inspire the next generations to do something about these issues,” Captain Moore said. “Right now, what’s done is done, and all we can do is stop our bad habits.”