On the shores of Lake Erie, where the children are above average & the sand is made of plastic

Over the weekend, I participated in a beach cleanup along Lake Erie at Perkins Beach in Edgewater State Park. The event was organized by Drink Local. Drink Tap., a local non-profit organization focusing on water issues in Northeast Ohio and globally.

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Unsurprisingly – particularly given that the event took place just two days after the 4th of July – the beach was strewn with a variety of litter and debris. I lost count on the number of cigarette butts and cigar tips that I picked up after I reached triple digits. Overall, the organizers reported that the other volunteers and I cleaned up 357.9 pounds of trash and 134.9 pounds of recyclable materials. Unfortunately, this effort did not even begin to make a dent in the problem; by the end, it had begun to feel like a Sisyphean task.

But while most of the other volunteers focused on the large and unusual items we found – including two discarded tires – I was particularly discouraged by the prevalence of small pieces of plastic and styrofoam. These tiny particles of plastic pollution, known as microplastic, are the real threat to the health of Lake Erie’s ecosystem.

Last fall, the 5 Gyres Institute and the State University of New York released a study on the problem of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. The research provided the first comprehensive plastic pollution survey of the lakes, and it represents an important baseline against which we can measure progress or, God forbid, further regression.

According to the survey, the researchers primarily found high concentrations of this microplastic, which is a piece of plastic debris less than 5 millimeters in diameter. According to the researchers,

One sample drawn near the border of Lake Erie’s central and eastern basins yielded 600,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer — twice the number found in the most contaminated oceanic sample on record, Mason said.

A second sample in Lake Erie yielded 450,000 plastic pieces, while the average sample across the three lakes studied yielded about 8,000 plastic pieces.

Microplastic litter comes from a variety of sources, including the breaking down of larger pieces of plastic by the elements; this was the primary source of the plastic and styrofoam pieces that I found littering Perkins Beach. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say that, in some areas, these pieces of plastic had become almost as numerous as the grains of sand. They are clearly an integral part of the beach at this point.

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

However, another key source of microplastic are conventional cosmetics and personal cleaning supplies, many of which contain small, abrasive plastic pellets. These pellets serve as exfoliates, and they have become increasingly popular in recent years. Because these plastic pieces are frequently used in the presence of water, i.e. in the shower, they readily enter our watercourses and end up in the lake.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Because it is so small and can be easily ingested by aquatic life and waterfowl, microplastic poses a major threat to the health of aquatic ecosystems like Lake Erie. It can leach chemicals into the bodies of these aquatic organisms and clearly bioaccumulates overtime. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that, if and when people consume animals that have ingested microplastic, the chemicals contained in the particles can leach into our systems as well (Thank God I’m a vegetarian…).

It’s important to note that, because the plastic pollution in Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes is far smaller than that in ocean garbage patches, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and is therefore nowhere no as big of an issue by volume. Yet, the concentration of this plastic debris is, in many instances, far greater than the average concentration of plastic in ocean gyres.

Microplastic pollution is yet another major environmental challenge we have created that threatens the health of Northeast Ohio’s most important natural resource. All in the name of vanity. As Solomon said in the Book of Ecclesiastes,

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Surely the Earth will abide and last far longer than humanity. But we are consciously and unconsciously altering it in countless ways, mostly for the worse.