Solutions for Worsening Plastic Pollution in Great Lakes: “It’s Not Enough Just to Pick Up Trash”

Crain’s Detroit Business senior editor Chad Livengood says we’re consuming “something along the lines of a credit card’s worth of plastic every month.”

Pollution — specifically plastic pollution — is threatening the Great Lakes.

Crain’s Detroit Business recently put together a major analysis of the ongoing problem plaguing the lakes. MichMash hosts Jake Neher and Cheyna Roth spoke with Crain’s senior editor Chad Livengood about the project.

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The summer project pulled in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Michigan State University journalism professor Eric Freedman. Freedman and Livengood settled on microplastics.

“I said, I haven’t seen a single story about microplastics and tell me what microplastics are,” says Livengood.

Microplastics are plastic trash and waste that get into the lakes from a variety of sources — from rivers and streams to dropped litter on the beach. When plastic waste gets into the lakes, the sun bakes it and breaks it down into tiny particles that are too small for the naked eye to see. Fish and other native organisms in the water then attach themselves to the plastic, thinking it’s food. While not much is known about what happens to the microplastics beyond that, scientists agree that it is a problem.

“There’s not a lot of people doing a lot of research in this particular area,” Livengood says. “There is plenty of research about plastics and the effects on humans long term; we are consuming something along the lines of a credit card’s worth of plastic every month in some form.”

Related: Plastic Pollution in Great Lakes Is “Becoming Increasingly Worse”

One source of microplastic fibers are coming from well water treatment plants and then showing up in municipal water, Livengood says. Microplastics could even be coming off of our clothes in the washing machine.

“If you have any kind of nylon clothing or any kind of other synthetic clothing, it has plastic fibers, those fibers come off in the washing machine,” Livengood explains.

“And they go into your into … your sewage systems. And they’re not always getting taken out. And so, then those fibers are showing up in fish, are showing up in birds, in the Great Lakes. And they’re even showing up in beer brewed from water that comes from municipal water sources that draw on one of the Great Lakes.”

Livengood says the biggest point coming out of the piece was how much isn’t known about microplastics in the Great Lakes. He said more research needs to be done on the long-term health effects of the plastic pollution.

“It’s not enough just to pick up trash,” he says. “And I think that maybe the one of the bigger takeaways is that plastic, as a material, there is long-term effects of this, of using it as a material for everything.”

More from MichMash:

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Michigan’s Petition Initiative Process Is A Mess

Pandemic Has Hurt Government Transparency, Reporters and Watchdogs Say

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  • Cheyna Roth
    Cheyna has interned with Michigan Radio and freelanced for WKAR public radio in Lansing. She's also done some online freelancing and worked on documentary films.
  • Jake Neher
    Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.