TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - An organization representing more than 100
cities in the U.S. and Canada asked federal and industry officials Tuesday
for action on the recently discovered problem of “microplastic” pollution
in the Great Lakes.
Over the past two years, scientists have reported finding thousands of
plastic bits - some visible only under a microscope - in the lakes that
make up nearly one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. Large masses
of floating plastics also have been detected in the world’s oceans.
Scientists believe some are abrasive “microbeads” used in personal care
products such as facial and body washes, deodorants and toothpaste.
They’re so minuscule that they flow through screens at waste treatment
plants and wind up in the lakes, where fish and aquatic birds might eat
them, mistaking them for fish eggs. They also could absorb toxins.
“Even though you cannot see them, they pose a very real threat to human
and wildlife health,” said John Dickert, mayor of Racine, Wis., and
secretary-treasurer of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.
The group sent letters to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its
counterpart, Environment Canada, asking what they plan to do about the
problem. David Ullrich, the organization’s executive director,
acknowledged it could take years to develop a regulatory crackdown on
In the meantime, his group is sending letters to 11 companies that use
microplastics, asking them to switch to biodegradable alternatives. Some
are doing so. Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have said they’ll
phase out microbeads, and L’Oreal says it won’t develop new products that
"We think it makes more sense to appeal directly to the people involved
and say, ‘Let’s work together and try to solve the problem; let’s do the
right thing,’” Ullrich said.
Additionally, the group is encouraging mayors in the eight states and two
Canadian provinces adjoining the lakes to urge residents to buy products
without microbeads. “We’re not calling for a boycott, but we’re asking
citizens to inform themselves,” Ullrich said.
Scientists led by chemist Sherri Mason of State University of New York at
Fredonia and the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit group based in California,
took samples from all five Great Lakes in 2012 and again this year by
skimming the surfaces with trawl nets attached to vessels.
In a paper published online by Marine Pollution Bulletin, they reported
finding the plastic bits in Lakes Erie, Huron and Superior, with the
highest concentrations in Erie. Mason said samples taken this summer from
Lakes Michigan and Ontario are still being analyzed, but initial
inspections turned up microplastics from both.
Pressuring companies to phase out microplastics quickly in favor of
biodegradable abrasives such as grape and apricot seeds is the best way to
deal with the problem, Mason said. Because of their size and wide
distribution, there’s no practical way to remove the particles from the
“Unfortunately, once they get into the water, they get widely
distributed,” she said. “You can’t just go out and filter all the water."