In 1988, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration first described the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," an area in the North Pacific Ocean where currents have concentrated plastic debris into a mucky toxic soup estimated by some to be twice the size of Texas.
And now, scientists are reporting that the same fate is befalling the Great Lakes, the largest groups of fresh water lakes in the world. Lorena M. Rios Mendoza, Ph.D., reported on the latest findings at the Great Lakes meeting of the American Chemical Society.
"The massive production of plastic and inadequate disposal has made plastic debris an important and constant pollutant on beaches and in oceans around the world, and the Great Lakes are not an exception," said Rios in a press release for the study.
The amount of plastic produced has increased a stunning 500 percent in the last 30 years, and plastics are now responsible for 80 to 90 percent of ocean pollution, according to Rios. It comes from plastic bags, bottles and other trash, fishing lines, household products, synthetic fibers shed by clothes in the washing machine, and other sources — as well as plastic pellets, the raw material which is melted down and molded into an array of commercial and industrial components.
The swirling “islands” of plastic pollution often go unnoticed because, rather than whole plastic bags and bottles for instance, the mess is made up of small and battered bits of plastic. In the samples Rios' team collected in Lake Erie, 85 percent of the particles were tinier than two-tenths of an inch, and much of that was microscopic. The researchers found between 1,500 and 1.7 million of these particles per square mile.
Fish and birds mistake the plastic for food and eat it, and the possibility that aquatic organisms are absorbing harmful substances from the pollutants is a concern as well. Fish are potentially passing such substances up the food chain to consumers; in a sense, we could be eating our own trash.
"The main problem with these plastic sizes is its accessibility to freshwater organisms that can be easily confused as natural food and the total surface area for adsorption of toxins and pseudo-estrogens increases significantly," Rios said.
The plastic pollution problem may be even worse in the Great Lakes than in the oceans, the study noted. The researchers found that the number of microparticles was 24 percent higher in the Great Lakes than in samples they collected in the Southern Atlantic Ocean.
Related stories on MNN:
- Biodegradable plastic: What you need to know
- Ocean garbage is killing whales, dolphins
- The journey of the plastic shopping bag
- The 8th continent: Pacific Ocean garbage patch